“I believe the East Greek Treasure, as it was called by the curator of Greek and Roman Art, Dietrich von Bothmer, had a couple of hundred pieces in it. And they were bought in either three or four groups over a period of time from the mid-1960s until about 1968. I became director [of the Metropolitan Museum of Art] on the 1st of April, 1967. And at one of the meetings of the board committee which decided on acquisitions, a number of these pieces were proposed. I can’t remember how much. There were 40 or 50 of them. And they were described as being part of the other pieces in what was described, as I said, as the East Greek Treasure. . . .
And some of the key pieces, that lovely ewer with the man stretched back holding the [lions].
A portion, I think, some of the most important pieces in silver of what the Metropolitan calls the East Greek Treasure—what you call the Lydian Hoard—was placed on view then, and then later when they were able to get the money to build a gallery. . . .
Well, it depends on your point of view. As Director, with many curators all wanting to buy something, all waiting for me to raise money and go out and influence trustees to give money, whether they called it East Greek or whether they called it Greek or silver or ancient or Achaemenian or whatever, it didn’t get much into my memory. You wanted it. You raised lots of money. It was in the “Age of Piracy”.
The Age of Piracy, as far as American museums collecting antiquities. You didn’t ask anybody where they came from. You didn’t go to any authorities in any of the countries where they could have come from. You didn’t go to any officials in the United States. There were no rules or regulations about whether they had to be imported legally or illegally. If you liked them and you had the money, you bought them. And that’s exactly what we did. . . .
Well, I think that the case has been made very strongly where they eventually came from. I think now it can be established that the major pieces, not every single one of the 90 [sic] pieces can be proved, but the major part of the stylistic entity comes from a tomb in Lydia in Turkey, and probably illegally. And I think that at the time that was not known or cared about. But I think today that it’s been very, very clearly established. . . . .
In the early 1970s, there was an associate curator of Greek and Roman Art whose name was Andrew Oliver.
[Note: Andrew Oliver served from 1960 to 1970 as assistant, and later associate curator of Greek and Roman Art at the Metropolitan Museum.]
He [Oliver] apparently went over and he went into the tomb reportedly where he thought these objects were found. And I remember he came back and told me that he had been in the tomb where they were supposed to have been found. . . .
I’m not sure whether he was sent. I’m not positive he was sent. He may have gone on his own and. . .went there.
Oh, I think everybody realizes that the chances were good that that came from this part of the world. Because you got the point one was not sure whether it was one single group of objects or 10 groups of various objects brought together by a dealer to get a higher price and say: This is one single hoard.
The dealer never claimed that. They said these were things that seemed to have a stylistic relationship. And it was the curator who began to realize that it must have come from one place.
But all of the pieces did not come from this one tomb. I think that’s well admitted in Turkish circles also. The bulk of it did.
But back then, as I say, it was a different climate. Until the UNESCO draft treaty was worked out and thought out, it was assumed that this was the age of collecting on a laissez faire basis. You found something on the market, whether it was in Switzerland or [elsewhere] in Europe or New York City. Buy it.
Well, as I say, during the time when the Turkish government would say we’d like to come and talk to you, or say they’d send a letter saying we would like to have these objects back—and we never received the letter at the Met—this is one period when one wasn’t sure what the heck was going on.
Now, however, when it’s been established very clearly that these pieces—the majority of them—the important ones—did come from a certain tomb in Lydia: We know the person who helped to break into the place. We know the names of the people who helped to relieve the tomb of its objects. We know the name of the dealer in Turkey who’s responsible for getting them from the villagers and then out of the country. It seems that it’s a very difficult thing today in the new climate of import/export [to say]: Look you can’t have them back.
I think that it’s inevitable that the Metropolitan Museum has a responsibility now to admit—Well we got stung. The Lydian Hoard is part of Turkey’s cultural patrimony and has to go back.
I think it’s a very simple thing. . . .
It would seem to me that both the Turkish authorities and the Metropolitan Museum of Art should meet and talk outside of a court of law how best to approach this problem. The Turks know that these are part of the cultural heritage of Turkey. The Metropolitan Museum presumably knows that.
But at the time when they [the Met] bought them—going back to 1966, 65, 66, 67, 68, it was a different climate. And there were no treaties. And nobody really gave a thought about import and export. And the Metropolitan Museum can argue that indeed they bought those on the open market. And, indeed, they were the neutral third party, as it’s called in law, and therefore have a right to their possession.
Well, the fact is that if both parties come and say: Alright, let us make some sort of a fine arrangement between two countries of people who are very intelligent and people who have responsibility and obligations as far as antiquities are concerned—
I’m sure if they approach it on that basis, they can work something out that’s very fine.
Now the Turkish government worked out such a thing with Dumbarton Oaks down in Washington, which had a group of Byzantine silver objects that everybody knows came from a certain place in Turkey. And they made an arrangement whereby there would be a sharing of these objects from institution-to-institution across the waters, and Dumbarton Oaks would help in restoring on both sides in Turkey and in Washington.
Then it all fell apart because the Turkish authorities said: We want it all.
And Dumbarton Oaks said: Goodbye.
I think, ‘We want it all’ is not very realistic on the part of the government.”