It was early spring of this year that I last spoke with Oscar Muscarella, a man whose expertise about ancient art I valued as much as his friendship. We first met in 1988—34 years ago—in his office at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to discuss Phrygian fibulae (ancient pins) for a Connoisseur magazine story I was co-authoring with Turkish journalist Özgen Acar.
Oscar Muscarella was for some time curator of Ancient Near East art at the Met, then officially Met Senior Research Fellow and unofficially its star whistleblower.
“Muscarella’s loyalty was ill rewarded. Half a year earlier, he had responded to [Metropolitan Museum trustee/ former US Treasury Secretary Douglas] Dillon’s invitation to the staff to address any grievances to him. He wrote a long letter decrying the wretched professional and economic status of the curators — as a seasoned and much-published archaeologist, he was getting $11,500 a year — and he begged that the staff be granted academic freedom and a voice in policy similar to those accorded most university faculties. Dillon passed the letter to [Met Director Thomas] Hoving, who was not pleased. Ultimately, Muscarella was dismissed three times. Unlike a score of others who resigned by request or were laid off, he stayed on through a civil suit [which he won].”—John L. Hess, The Grand Acquisitors (Houghton Mifflin, 1974)
Oscar and I continued to have conversations through the years about the antiquities trade and its parade of scandalous personalities.
But he had now retired from the Met and was writing scholarly articles from his Upper West Side apartment where I reached him by phone just as he returned from grocery shopping. He said he was a little tired but was otherwise his exuberant self and sounded very much on top of life’s struggles.
We kibbitzed about the mess New York was in and a bit about antiquities.
Oscar, however, was slipping away and by summer had left his Manhattan apartment for his family home in Pennsylvania. My voice message on his cell phone went unanswered. We never spoke again. Oscar died November 27.
Tears are often better than words. . . Oscar was an incisive, courageous, gracious man. A superb scholar. A caring human being.
I am linking here my 2018 review of the festschrift Elizabeth Simpson edited as a tribute to Oscar: The Adventure of the Illustrious Scholar. The book review opens with links to several stories of mine in which Oscar’s comments were crucial. Yes, Elizabeth, we will miss Oscar. . .