There’s an exquisite new book from Brill, The Adventure of the Illustrious Scholar: Papers Presented to Oscar White Muscarella, celebrating the life and work of one of the great archaeologists of our time, Oscar White Muscarella, who served for decades as Ancient Near East expert at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and unofficially as the Met’s chief whistleblower.
The “festschrift”—a volume destined for the world’s important libraries—is edited by Elizabeth Simpson, another extraordinary scholar of ancient art and archaeology who has helped to reanimate the Phrygian civilization (the kingdom of Midas), particularly through her understanding of that culture’s fascination with puzzles evident in its intricately designed furniture.
The book is centered around one of Oscar’s heroes, master sleuth Sherlock Holmes, and features chapters contributed by 42 great names associated with ancient art and archaeology, and, of course, Oscar. Among them: David Stronach, Clemency Chase Coggins, Martha Sharp Joukowsky, Neil Brodie, Özgen Acar, Lawrence M. Kaye.
The book is also 1,020 pages and a bit pricey, but for those interested in reading the masters, it’s a treasure. Roughly 400 visuals of mostly spectacular photos accompany the text—including one of young Oscar bearing a striking resemblance to Little Lord Fauntleroy.
Particularly charming is the Muscarella biography written by Elizabeth Simpson, a professor at Bard Graduate Center in New York and director of the Gordion Furniture Project at Penn Museum in Philadelphia.
Simpson’s chapter on “Luxury Arts of the Ancient Near East” was of special interest to me regarding its brief treatment of James Mellaart and the so-called Dorak Treasure. (More about this later.)
Larry Kaye, a lawyer from Herrick, Feinstein in New York known for successfully representing parties in art disputes like Turkey (Lydian Hoard, Elmali coins) and Germany (Dürer etchings), has written an excellent chapter on the Lydian Hoard case— noting Oscar’s pivotal role early on in a quote from The Medici Conspiracy (Peter Watson, Cecilia Todeschini):
“Oscar wrote a memorandum that was circulated within the Museum to ‘appeal against the destruction of burial mounds and against the purchase and display of objects lacking a scientific and secure provenance . . . He also let it be known that a Turkish journalist had expressed to him an interest in inspecting the objects in the museum’s basement.'”
It’s a story I covered for the anonymously written Economist magazine at the time of the battle.
Kaye also takes some time to discuss the fine points regarding the issue of statute of limitations and explains how this varies in various jurisdictions. However, he ignores the most high profile example in recent art history of statute of limitations running out: Italy’s case against antiquities dealer Bob Hecht, who sold the Euphronios vase, etc., to the Met. Hecht died at age 92, just weeks after the six-year trial halted, no doubt content and wearing an Archaic smile.
To quote Oscar: “I’ve always said if you want to commit a crime, Italy is the place to do it.”
Özgen Acar, the inimitable investigative journalist from Turkey who first educated me about the “dirty business” of the antiquities trade and was key to the recovery of the Lydian Hoard, and to many other Anatolian treasures, has contributed a chapter, “Kyme: An Ancient Center of Jewelry Production in Asia Minor.”
The article’s stunning photographs, courtesy of the Izmir Archaeological Museum, are of gold jewelry found in recent excavations at Kyme and dated 4th and 3rd century BC: embossed diadems, a scarab ring, pierced earrings featuring winged Erotes and Nikes and other treasures. Özgen comments that the pieces resemble a collection now at the British Museum likely looted from Kyme in the 19th century.
Also resembling these at the Met:
It’s interesting that former Met director Thomas Hoving, who bought the Euphronios from Hecht and was Oscar’s archenemy, was also Özgen’s editor at Connoisseur and perhaps his most enthusiastic supporter in pursuing the antiquities mafia.
Long-time Archaeology magazine editor Mark Rose’s chapter on deformities in ancient art is an intriguing one. Some images remind me of the startling collection of malformed humans I recently saw in bottles at Amsterdam’s Vrolik Museum.
Regarding Elizabeth Simpson’s mention of the Dorak Treasure in her article on “Luxury Arts”—while I agree with Elizabeth that the Dorak Treasure needs to be removed “from the corpus of luxury arts of the third millennium B.C.,” I do not agree that the case is not solved. The case is closed. There is overwhelming proof, enough even for Holmes—that it was a hoax. Plus James Mellaart had more than half a century to publish his monograph on Dorak and never did present it for public scrutiny. Not even to Oscar when he visited Mellaart’s London flat.
James Mellaart’s son Alan advised during my phone conversation with him following the death of his parents several years ago that the monograph had not turned up in his father’s papers.
“It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”—Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Beryl Coronet”
[See my 2005 three-part story on Dorak syndicated by Scoop Media; see also, Oscillations 2021 update: Dorak Treasure Hoax Manuscript Surfaces, But Why Beat a Dead Horse? ]
It was actually in a Holmesian-type setting at the Met that I first met Oscar Muscarella. The office space was dimly lit. I remember a lamp with a green shade—the kind found in libraries before computer screens replaced reading rooms. And in the glow of the lamp Oscar’s quite handsome face with a beauty mark on the right cheek (now gone) and thick, slicked-back hair. He wore a seersucker suit set off with a paisley ascot. I don’t remember the cufflinks but I distinctly recall a pipe on his desk. It was at that first meeting in the late 80s that he told me he was a member of the Sherlock Holmes club.
I was relatively new to the ancient world. I mean I’d been to Olduvai to interview Mary Leakey, but antiquities was another matter. Oscar was aware of my story collaboration with Özgen Acar—who he greatly respected. We were working on a piece on Phrygia for Connoisseur magazine and needed Oscar’s expert opinion on the dates of pins (fibulas). Özgen was by that time beginning to pack up to return to Turkey following his success with the Lydian case.
Oscar had excavated at Gordion, the Phrygian capital, over several decades beginning in 1957. He also excavated several other sites in Turkey in the 90s and a half dozen sites in Iran throughout the decade of the 60s.
Many conversations with Oscar would follow our first meeting, and he has never deprived me of a provocative quote. And so it surprised me when he told me one day that I was the first journalist ever to do a feature interview with him.
Oscar likes to end conversations with “You take care,” having learned the value of friendship at an early age, surviving a tumultuous childhood in and out of foster homes, which Simpson goes into in some detail in her biography.
I am particularly grateful to Oscar for the following:
—Always returning my calls during my reporting of events related to the Rome antiquities trial (2005-2011). I wrote 30 or so stories during those years that were syndicated by Scoop Media—15 of which Harvard Law School included in its Art Law Syllabus (2008).
—After I examined the letters of James Mellaart that Özgen faxed to me from Turkey regarding the Dorak Treasure, I noticed date style similarities in the Anna Papastrati letter and some of Mellaart’s other correspondence and circled them. I showed the letters to Oscar and he agreed that I had stumbled onto something. He suggested I contact Oxford University to get further perspective about date numbering, which I did and which left Mellaart’s Dorak Treasure looking increasingly like a hoax. Oscar also suggested that I call archaeologist David Stronach, who was close to Mellaart at the time Dorak was concocted. Indeed, Stronach and Mellaart used to accompany Agatha Christie shopping in the Near East’s bazaars (Christie was married to archaeologist Max Mallowan).
I took Oscar’s advice and called David Stronach, who in our 2005 conversation confirmed that Dorak—the “whole enterprise”—was a Mellaart fantasy. Stronach called it a “dream-like episode.”
—In the fall of 2013 following my return from five months of exhausting travel, Oscar called me suggesting I might want to further explore an object that America had gifted to Iran from ICE storage. It was a silver griffin, a piece that he’d already taken apart for the academic press and labeled a forgery. I rang up several “experts” who said more. I wrote a two-part story on the griffin, which appeared in Scoop Media and CounterPunch. The story went viral and was the perfect antidote for my travel fatigue.
I am especially pleased to see this volume celebrating the life and work of Oscar White Muscarella and honored to be remembered in its footnotes.