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The Little Museum’s Big Score: Emory University wanted finest antiquities, didn’t ask many questions

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The Little Museum’s Big Score: Emory University wanted finest antiquities, didn’t ask many questions


Editor’s note: This article was reprinted with permission from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

By Stephanie M. Lee, The Chronicle of Higher Education

A bathtub in Emory University’s museum is splashed with symbols of the sea: a giant fish, wavy water lines. Someone in the ancient Mediterranean world may have used it as a coffin, believing it would ferry their soul to the afterlife, as a label told museum visitors.

Yet this tub has another dark history. In 2007, Greece told the Michael C. Carlos Museum that it and two other artifacts were looted, and asked for them back. They are still there.

The Carlos Museum is considered to have the most prominent classical-art collection in the Southeast and one of the best of any university museum in the country. In an era where Emory was striving to be seen as a top school, the Carlos emerged as a cultural force in its own right, luring crowds, scholars, and money to campus.

But the museum’s antiquities often came from people tied to the vast and shadowy business of plundering the world’s treasures, and erasing history forever in the process.

An analysis of the Carlos’s collection paints a portrait of a museum that aggressively expanded with seemingly little regard for what experts say were clear warning signs. At least 218 of the Carlos’s artifacts passed through people who have been convicted or indicted on charges related to antiquities trafficking or falsifying antiquities’ provenance information, according to a Chronicle review of the museum’s online catalog.

Those items are part of a larger group — totaling at least 562 — whose previous owners and sellers have been linked by authorities to the illicit antiquities trade, have acquired allegedly looted objects, or have had works seized or returned to their source countries. The items are predominantly in the museum’s roughly 1,160-piece Greek and Roman collection.

Notably, the Carlos accepted dozens of relics after their past handlers had been raided by authorities or accused of criminal activity, records indicate. In an interview, the current director, Henry S. Kim, did not dispute The Chronicle’s findings and agreed that there were “red flags” in some objects’ histories. He also said that the museum did not know the provenances of a number of antiquities when it acquired them.

The Carlos is hardly the only American museum that has benefited from asking few questions. Despite claiming to collect ethically, storied institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum filled their galleries with goods unearthed from tombs and ruins and passed through dealers, restorers, curators, collectors, and auction houses.

Now high society’s ties with looters and their enablers are being publicized and prosecuted, bringing the Indiana Jones era to a closeBenin bronzes are going back to Nigeria, Native American remains to their tribes, statues of deities to Nepal and Cambodia, and sculptures to Greece, Turkey, and Italy — with no end in sight.

Compared to the much-bigger Met and Getty, the Carlos has faced little scrutiny, even though many of its materials came from the same sketchy sources. And as returns from PrincetonCornell, and Fordham Universities show, colleges are being called to account.

University museums are responsible for training future academics, curators, and conservators to study and care for artifacts. But the Carlos’s history of laissez-faire behavior, experts say, is a cautionary tale of how scholars and scholarly institutions can incentivize the theft of those very works.

In the Carlos’s stately Greek and Roman galleries, marbled gods and rulers — Venus here, Tiberius there — gaze out from every corner. Red-and-black vases depict epic dramas, from Hercules wrestling the Nemean Lion to Athena observing the fall of Troy. Figurines, funerary reliefs, earrings, and cups hint at how long-gone civilizations lived, warred, worshiped, and died.

This bounty is the culmination of the charge once handed down to the museum’s longtime curator: Procure the finest that $10 million can buy. “My instructions,” he once said, “are to look for not the best, but the very best.”

David Gill, an archaeologist and fellow with the Centre for Heritage at the University of Kent, in England, says that he has watched with dismay as Emory’s museum has appeared to compromise ethical standards in the name of rapacious acquisition.

“The Carlos,” he says, “has just turned a blind eye to this.”

Georgia’s oldest washing machine. Three thousand beetles. Samurai armor. Egyptian mummies. This was the stuff of Emory’s museum before it was the Carlos.

Founded in 1836 as Emory College in rural Oxford, Ga., Emory University moved its main campus to Atlanta after World War I. Its growing collection encompassed natural history, archaeology, and — for lack of a better term — odds and ends. Shuttled from one cramped space to another around campus, it gave the “sense of having strolled into someone’s unusually desperate garage sale,” Emory’s historian has written.

In 1979, the former president of Coca-Cola gave Emory $105 million in the form of three million shares of stock. The largest single gift ever to a higher-education institution at the time, it bolstered the aspirations of a university that didn’t just want to be one of the best in the South. It gave Emory “the capacity to emerge as one of the principal institutions of higher learning in the United States in the next decade,” said James T. Laney, then president of the university.

That ambition buoyed the fledgling museum. With a newly narrowed focus on art and archaeology, it hired a director to take it to the next level: Maxwell L. Anderson, a 31-year-old Harvard University Ph.D. and disillusioned assistant curator at the Met.

The Met was coming off an era of rampant growth under Thomas Hoving, a director who likened acquiring to hunting for the finest, rarest species. “My collecting style was pure piracy, and I got a reputation as a shark,” he later wrote in his memoirs. In 1972, the museum dropped an unprecedented $1 million on a stunning red-and-black krater, or vase, by the ancient artist Euphronios. Championing the purchase was Dietrich von Bothmer, head of the department of Greek and Roman art and the world’s foremost expert in ancient Greek vases. “When I saw the vase,” he later said, “I knew I had found what I had been searching for all my life.”

Robert Hecht, the dealer who’d brokered the exchange, claimed that the seller’s family had acquired it in 1920. Italian authorities, on the other hand, believed that the krater had been illegally unearthed by tombaroli, or tomb raiders, the year before it was sold. Years later, a Getty curator would say in a sworn deposition that von Bothmer had shown her the exact tomb from which it had been looted, which he denied.

Working in von Bothmer’s department, Anderson recalls being uncomfortable with the curator’s “swashbuckling” attitude. He took a leave of absence from the Met to teach in Rome and came home disgusted by the sight of ransacked tombs. Even though Emory had a fraction of the resources he was used to, it was an opportunity to strike out on his own.

“I felt like it was equally a chance to make a case for a new direction for museums and thinking about antiquities,” Anderson says, “that wouldn’t encourage looting.”

He wasn’t the only one alarmed by the growing destruction of the world’s heritage. Greece’s attempts to protect its cultural property date back to an 1834 law declaring that all antiquities excavated on public land belonged to the state. Since 1909, Italy has claimed ownership of all archaeological discoveries. But these and other countries’ laws were not widely recognized internationally, nor were the countries always willing and able to enforce them, so illegal trafficking continued.

To many archaeologists, artifacts are worth little without their original context — bones, plant and animal remains, geology, dating, architecture. “When you do an archaeological excavation, you can collect so much information that it’s no longer the specific artifact that’s actually giving you the information. It’s the combination of the contextual information,” says Ömür Harmanşah, an associate professor of art history at the University of Illinois at Chicago and vice president for cultural heritage at the Archaeological Institute of America. “You can tell a beautiful story with all of those coming together.”

When thieves dig for “important” things under the cover of night, they erase that story. The loss is unquantifiable. Eighty-five percent of graves from a Bronze Age civilization may be wiped out because its figurines became a 20th-century collectors’ craze. Between the end of World War II and 1962, 400 out of 550 tombs were looted at just one cemetery in Italy. And from 1993 to 1997, Italian police recovered more than 120,000 stolen artifacts. What’s stolen can suffer, too, and get carved up into stashable, sellable chunks.

Most archaeologists agree that to discourage modern looting, museums should avoid acquiring unprovenanced antiquities that first surfaced after 1970. That line was drawn by a watershed anti-trafficking convention adopted by the United Nations’ culture agency, Unesco. Some even argue that every antiquity sold or donated with a patchy history feeds the market for dubiously sourced goods.

But others worry the backlash has gone too far. Art historian James Cuno has argued that “encyclopedic museums” play a valuable role in preserving and displaying the past. “It is a fact that the archaeological site will not be restored or the lost knowledge recovered by a museum’s decision not to acquire the antiquity,” Cuno, who once led the Art Institute of Chicago and the J. Paul Getty Trust, has written. And John Boardman, an emeritus professor of classical archaeology and art at Oxford University, wrote in 2009 that museums are “full of objects that speak for themselves … without knowledge of their full or even any provenance.” Overregulation, he feared, could drive the black market underground and objects from view altogether.

“Anyone anywhere who now comes on a hoard of coins or Roman silver will do best simply to melt them down,” he declared. “What good does that do for scholarship and the heritage of humanity?”

Anderson arrived in Atlanta in 1987 with a vision for how works of art could be displayed without necessarily being owned.

In an international loan program that was ahead of its time, he persuaded museums like the Museo Nazionale Romano and the Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi, both in Italy, to lend him rarely seen relics from their storerooms. In exchange, Emory sponsored restoration at those institutions and jointly published catalogs of the works. Anderson and his growing staff also built up the permanent collection — pre-Columbian artifacts, Egyptian antiquities, ancient Greek jewelry, drawings — and he was credited with doubling the object count to 15,000. But the loan program “is our future,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

All that activity demanded more space, and a local entrepreneur, Michael C. Carlos, provided it.

Born and raised in Atlanta by a Greek immigrant couple, Carlos worked his way to the top of the family business, a successful liquor distributor. When Emory’s president approached him in 1981 for help renovating the museum, the philanthropist gave $1.5 million — the first of many gifts that would total nearly $20 million. For a transformative 40,000-square-foot expansion, which added galleries, a conservation lab, an education center, a bookstore, a cafe, and a lecture hall, Carlos put up more than half of the $8.5-million cost. The museum reopened on Emory’s leafy quadrangle in 1993, bearing a modern, neo-Florentine exterior and the name of its biggest benefactor over the door.

When Anderson left in 1995, annual attendance had jumped from 20,000 to 100,000. His successor, Anthony Hirschel, shared his commitment to provenance. “Unlike many museums, it is being disarmingly open about what it knows — and what it doesn’t know — about its collections,” marveled the Journal-Constitution in a 1999 story headlined “Carlos Museum Tempers Desire to Acquire.” In the article, Hirschel recounted the agony of turning down a lovely Aphrodite of unknown origin. “If it doesn’t have proper paperwork,” he said, “we can’t have it.”

The Carlos couldn’t afford to splurge, anyway. To buy a group of Egyptian mummies, it had to crowdfund $2 million from 317 donors — a sum that nearly matched its annual budget. Once the bodies arrived from Canada, Hirschel and his Egyptian-art curator deduced that one of them was likely the pharaoh Ramesses I. The Carlos voluntarily shipped it back to Egypt a few years later, further cementing its image as a leader in ethical acquiring.

University museums needed to be careful, Hirschel believed. “If we made enemies in countries, it would then make it more difficult for the students with whom we worked every day to go and do their work in those countries,” he told The Chronicle. “Aside from all the very powerful moral arguments about how one ought to confront these issues, we also had this responsibility that we would take others down with us if we behaved badly.”

Then the museum’s greatest patron unveiled a surprise.

On November 15, 1999, a week after the Journal-Constitution praised the Carlos’s collecting style, Michael Carlos invited a group of university leaders to lunch. “The millennium is around the corner, and we want to be part of it,” he said. “In conjunction with that, my wife and I are pledging $10 million to the museum.” The gift would turbocharge the ancient Greek and Roman collection, which the Carloses, fiercely proud of their Greek heritage, had already started building.

Everyone, Hirschel included, was bowled over. This was “a defining moment” that would “make the classical collection world-class,” the museum board chair told a reporter. An Emory vice president told Carlos that he had already helped draw scores of volunteers, donors, and community members to the university and that the new gift would be “a wonderful legacy for you and your wife.”

That legacy would be fulfilled by an up-and-coming curator named Jasper Gaunt.

Gaunt grew up with the past at his fingertips. Born to British parents who taught in Rome, he spent his childhood playing in the ruins of the Roman Forum, according to interviews he has given. When he moved back to England at age 9, he studied Latin and Greek at the prestigious Harrow School and found himself drawn to the school’s collection of Greek vases. At Oxford University, he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in classics, which covered ancient languages, history, and philosophy. But archaeology held a uniquely tactile appeal.

“You can learn more by picking up a piece of pottery for five minutes than you can reading 20 boring articles,” he has said.

Gaunt worked for a few years in London at Christie’s, the famed auction house, and then pursued an art history Ph.D. at New York University. According to his résumé, his dissertation on ancient Greek pottery was supervised by von Bothmer — the Met curator, by then retired, who’d pushed to acquire the controversial Euphronios krater. And while in New York, Gaunt also worked for Hecht — the dealer who’d sold von Bothmer the krater.

This job is not on Gaunt’s résumé. But records show that he was working with Hecht as early as 1992 and until at least 1999. In 1995, he wrote to a client of Hecht’s about a fresco smuggled out of Italy, according to court records.

Robin F. Rhodes, an archaeologist at the University of Notre Dame, says Gaunt was introduced to him as Hecht’s assistant in the late 1990s. Rhodes was heading to New York for work when the campus-museum director asked him, as a favor, to get an idea of what the museum might be able to buy. He swung by Hecht’s apartment for a prearranged appointment, where Gaunt brought out pieces, Rhodes recalls. He didn’t think about it again until he learned that the Carlos had a new Greek and Roman curator.

“When I heard Jasper was hired, that just surprised me,” says Rhodes, a historian of ancient Greek architecture. “I knew Robert Hecht was notorious.”

Hecht had been on law enforcement’s radar since the 1960s, when he was accused of trafficking in Turkey and Italy. Raiding his Paris apartment in February 2001, authorities found 43 dirt-covered relics under his bed and an unpublished memoir stating that for over 50 years, he’d “accidentally bought objects that were really ‘stolen’ from museums or excavations.” The draft also provided a new origin story for the infamous Euphronios krater, one that differed from what Hecht and the Met had claimed. In this version, Hecht’s source had been a “loyal” supplier who toured Italian villages every morning, “visiting all the clandestine diggers.” The confession would eventually help Italian prosecutors build a case that Hecht was the mastermind behind a global trafficking network of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities.

Gaunt started working at the Carlos in mid-December 2001, according to news releases. Hirschel remembers hiring him “before the full extent of Bob Hecht’s activities was widely understood.” And he remembers Gaunt agreeing on the need to take precautions with acquisitions, especially since his actions could affect Emory students and scholars. “Jasper understood exactly what the issue was for us,” Hirschel says, “and if he had felt that it was impossible for him to do the job in the way he thought was appropriate, with those limitations, then he couldn’t have accepted the job.”

Yet Hirschel wouldn’t be around to monitor his new hire. He left to direct the Indianapolis Museum of Art shortly before Gaunt started.

“You have no idea how lucky this university is to have this museum,” Gaunt was quoted saying in a campus newsletter a few months into the job. “Yale has fine antiquities, Harvard, Princeton, maybe there are two or three other schools. We are in an extraordinarily privileged situation to have antiquities at all, and to have very high-quality ones.” He added: “It’s a small collection, but it’s growing.”

A large chunk of that collection today traces back to Hecht and the slippery characters in his orbit.

Remarkably, one of Gaunt’s early purchases appears to be something that he had previously tried to sell on Hecht’s behalf, according to correspondence obtained by The Chronicle. In December 1999, using Hecht’s letterhead, Gaunt described the dimensions and historical significance of an ancient grave marker to a curator at the Carlos. Another curator then turned to an outside expert, explaining that she wanted to verify it was free of “outstanding concerns.” It wasn’t: The expert wrote that its inscription was likely “a forgery.” The sale was dropped — until Gaunt arrived in Atlanta. In 2003, the museum bought the grave marker from Hecht.

Reached by phone, Gaunt said, “I’m in London, thanks,” and hung up. He did not respond to additional requests for comment.

Kim, the Carlos’s current director, acknowledges that “the inscription raises questions” and says that the museum is allowing scholars to research it.

Another early purchase from Hecht was a marble statue thought to be of Terpsichore, the Greek muse of dance, draped in a tunic and still flecked with pigment. All told, the Carlos acquired at least 34 vases, figurines, and other items linked to Hecht — meaning they came directly from him, or he had previously handled them — between 2001 and 2006.

In 2005, Hecht was brought to trial in Italy on charges that he had conspired with a former Getty curator to sell looted antiquities to that museum, which they both denied. Another co-defendant, Italian dealer Giacomo Medici, was sentenced to eight years in prison and a 10-million-Euro fine, the stiffest penalty for such a crime in that country’s history. While the charges against Hecht and the Getty curator were later dismissed for exceeding the statute of limitations, the judge said that “it is not possible to acquit Hecht for any of the charges he has disputed.” Shortly before he died in February 2012, Hecht told the Los Angeles Times: “I have no idea of where an object was excavated. It could have been excavated 100 years ago; it could have been excavated an hour ago.”

Passing through Hecht or anyone else doesn’t automatically make an object looted. But Christos Tsirogiannis, who leads research into illicit antiquities trafficking at Ionian University, in Greece, says that responsible curators should be looking for signs of trouble. And after his infamous transaction with the Met, Hecht was clearly trouble.

“The obvious thing for any museum that had the most-basic ethical standards is just not to buy objects, not to cooperate with these guys, especially when the objects are equally unprovenanced, like the Euphronios krater,” he says. “So not only they don’t do that, they continue buying such objects.”

But in the rarefied, tight-knit circle of classical art, it may have been hard to see Hecht as a criminal. Around Christmas 2006, as Gaunt was circulating the New York auction scene, a reporter spotted Hecht — “the dealer being prosecuted for selling looted artifacts” — sipping champagne at a party with everyone else.

When Hecht needed to fix up looted antiquities before shopping them around, according to authorities, he handed them to the Bürkis, a father-and-son pair of restorers in Zurich. The father, Fritz Bürki, restored the Euphronios krater sold to the Met. On October 9, 2001, when more than 500 stolen Italian antiquities were found on the Bürkis’ premises, the elder Bürki admitted knowing that most of what he restored was looted. He also admitted to occasionally acting as a front man for Hecht, among others, in sales to American museums, which was used as evidence in a 2004 court case. Fritz Bürki, alongside Hecht and others, was charged in Italy with trafficking in 2001, though the statute of limitations expired, according to court records.

Yet those events apparently didn’t deter the Carlos from adding at least 52 items linked to either or both Bürkis from 2002 to 2006. (Fritz Bürki died in 2015. His son, who could not be reached for comment, told authorities in 2001 that he did not know why items tagged with an alleged trafficker’s name were found on their premises and that he had sold a handful of items to the Getty through Hecht.)

One of Hecht’s alleged suppliers was Gianfranco Becchina, a Sicilian dealer who in the 1970s started operating a gallery with his wife out of Basel, Switzerland. Authorities say he also operated a vast trafficking ring throughout Italy. In a series of raids on his gallery and storage facilities starting in 2002, Italian and Swiss authorities found more than 5,000 artifacts, many still dirty with soil, along with thousands of photos and documents chronicling sales and shipments.

The year after the raids began, the Carlos bought a headless statue. The museum’s records now state that before the sale, it had no ownership history other than being with Becchina. Gaunt had purchased from the dealer before, back when he was working for Hecht in the 1990s, according to shipping invoices obtained by Jason Felch, an expert on the illicit antiquities trade. Kim, the museum’s current director, says that the Carlos did not know about the statue’s link to Becchina until it surfaced in research this year.

Trafficking charges against Becchina in Italy were dismissed in 2011 due to the statute of limitations expiring, but roughly 6,000 of his artifacts were confiscated because a judge determined they were looted. In Greece, Becchina has been convicted of receiving stolen antiquities.

Contacted through his daughter by email, Becchina denied that he was a trafficker and said that all his activity in Switzerland was “in compliance with the rules and customs of the country.” In response to questions regarding the Carlos, he wrote, “I myself cannot easily remember anything without being able to consult my archive, which, considering various investigations, I’ve lost sight and track of.”

His wife and gallery partner, Ursula “Rosie” Becchina, was held in prison when she refused to cooperate with authorities after the 2002 raids. (Her husband said she was unavailable to comment due to poor health.) She is linked to at least 10 objects acquired by the Carlos from 2002 to 2006, including broken fragments of Greek pottery.

A prominent collection of such fragments resides at the Carlos. They originated with von Bothmer, the Met curator who advocated for buying the krater from Hecht. An avid collector of thousands of pottery shards starting in the 1960s, he had an uncanny knack for reconstructing them into whole vases.

These bits may have figured into a black-market scheme, authorities and scholars say. Hecht and other dealers have been suspected of distributing fragments of a looted vessel among themselves — perhaps even deliberately smashing it — and slowly, separately sending them to museums, all to avoid drawing scrutiny with an intact vase. Gifting or selling a few pieces to the private collection of a curator, like von Bothmer, would have made his institution eager to pay for subsequent ones, the theory goes. Other experts say this strategy would be too slow and unprofitable.

Two ancient Greek pottery fragments donated to the Carlos by Dietrich von Bothmer. Photo provided by the Michael C. Carlos Museum

An ancient drinking cup at the Met, painstakingly rebuilt over 16 years, was seized last year by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. Authorities called it the product of looting, pointing to photographic evidence that parts of it had passed through an accused trafficker. Von Bothmer provided some of the fragments from his private collection, and they weren’t the first pieces of his to be identified as looted and returned to Italy. The legendary scholar, who died in 2009, was never charged with any criminal activity.

From 2002 to 2006, von Bothmer donated about 250 fragments and some complete pieces to the Carlos — the employer of his former graduate student. Dozens of them also passed through Hecht, the Bürkis, and Ursula Becchina, among others who have been charged with and convicted of trafficking. None of their records indicate where the pieces were originally found.

“This is setting alarm bells ringing,” says Gill, the University of Kent archaeologist.

These aren’t the only alarming names in the Carlos’s catalog. Phoenix Ancient Art sold or previously handled at least 23 artifacts, including a 5-foot-tall Greek jar called a pithos. They were acquired between 2001 and 2022 — a period during which the Geneva- and New York-based dealer faced scrutiny from authorities around the world.

In 2004, co-founder Hicham Aboutaam paid a $5,000 fine for misrepresenting the origin of a vessel he imported into the United States, a misdemeanor charge. That same year, his brother and co-founder, Ali Aboutaam, was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison in Egypt for smuggling antiquities, according to news reports, but a Phoenix spokesperson says the case was appealed and later thrown out. Earlier this year, Ali Aboutaam was convicted of paying an intermediary to import antiquities into Switzerland and using forged origin documents, according to The Wall Street Journal. (A spokesperson says that during a six-year investigation, Swiss authorities found that only 18 objects out of 15,000 lacked proper documentation.)

The Chronicle’s analysis is based on information posted on the Carlos’s website from May to August, which is subject to change as the museum researches its holdings. Historically, it disclosed little about how it ended up with its objects. Take the bathtub-shaped coffin — known as a larnax — whose style is believed to be unique to the Minoan civilization that lived on the island of Crete. As recently as 2020, its only presale backstory was that it had been in “private collections” in Switzerland and Japan.

Today, the larnax’s earliest named handler is Nicolas Koutoulakis, a gallery owner and dealer in Geneva, now deceased. He was named in an organization chart of the illicit trade, seized by authorities in the 1990s, and also handled museum artifacts that GreeceItaly, and Turkey have demanded to be returned.

The larnax then passed through Ursula Becchina, in Switzerland; another person in Switzerland; and Noriyoshi Horiuchi, in Japan, a dealer from whom hundreds of artifacts have been seized and returned to Italy.

The Carlos eventually bought the larnax in 2002 from Robert Haber, a New York dealer with a dubious history. In 1986, he sold a dagger and scabbard that had allegedly been looted by Gianfranco Becchina. And when Haber sold an illegally imported gold bowl from Sicily in the 1990s, a judge ordered it repatriated. (Haber and Horiuchi did not return requests for comment.)

The museum was “not aware” of this trail when it acquired the larnax, says Kim, the Carlos’s director.

But Tsirogiannis, who researches the illicit trade, says that museums should have been conducting due diligence since the Unesco convention first called for acquisitions to be properly documented and legally exported. “The same exact work that is being done today should have been done since 1970,” he says.

The Carlos still does not say where the larnax was excavated, nor where it was during the 3,300-odd years between the mid-14th century B.C. and the 1960s.

In 2015, Todd Lamkin, the Carlos’s chief registrar, told an inquiring faculty member that the museum did not insist on knowing such answers — though it intended to share more information about objects online soon.

“We tread a fine line when it comes to discussing provenance,” he wrote in an email. “Our donors often ask for our discretion, and even when we do know lengthy history on an object, we often only know this by word of mouth and have little on paper.” (Lamkin did not return a request for comment.)

The Carloses got their money’s worth, thanks to Gaunt’s exceptional eye, insatiable appetite, and competitive streak. “When I fight, I like to win,” he declared after leaving one fierce auction with a $420,000 goddess head. At one point, he was reportedly acquiring something new every two weeks on average.

In 2004, the Carlos redesigned its Greek and Roman gallery to flaunt its hundreds of vases, gems, jewelry, and sculptures. A rave review in the Journal-Constitution highlighted the enormous pithos, “one of only two on display in the United States,” and the Hellenistic Greek sculpture of Terpsichore, “which bears some of its original paint.”

A statue of Terpsichore, the Greek muse of dance (left), which the Carlos bought from Robert Hecht, and a pithos, or jar, (right) that the Carlos purchased from Phoenix Ancient Art. Photo provided by the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

The art world seethed with envy. “Emory is leading the pack in acquiring the best and most impressive objects — beyond Princeton, the Getty, and the Met,” Princeton’s then-curator of ancient art told a reporter. Emory boasted that “scholars now name it among the top five university-owned classical art collections in the United States.”

“What I’m asked to do is to do the Frick,” Gaunt said in a 2007 article, referring to the preeminent New York museum. “It will never be as big, but it will have the same voltage.”

Beautiful things brought color, glamor, and life to Emory. VIPs hobnobbed over cocktails at the museum’s swanky annual fundraising gala. Children toured the exhibits and took classes to make their own works of art. Between gallery talks, concerts, poetry readings, and tea time with curators, the Carlos offered something to do practically every day.

Treasures enriched intellectual life, too. Faculty shaped courses around them, students learned how to conserve them, and scholars studied them.

Gaunt was one of those scholars. In a 2015 study funded in part by the Carloses’ foundation, he and a team of researchers analyzed 50 of the museum’s sculptures to determine the likely sources of their marble. Among them was the statue now identified as Terpsichore, purchased from Hecht and dated to the middle of the second century B.C. There are no details on where it was before arriving at the Carlos in 2002.

At the time of purchase, the museum was told it had been in the joint inventory of Hecht and George Zakos, a Switzerland-based dealer, since 1974, according to Kim. Kim says the Carlos recently pulled that claim from its website after research called it into question. Still, Gill, the University of Kent archaeologist, says that Zakos’s involvement should have also raised eyebrows in the first place. In 1993, the Met repatriated a hoard of allegedly looted Turkish artifacts that had been donated in part by him.

Gaunt also published analyses of some of the Carlos’s fragments with no documented pedigree. Some came from his old mentor von Bothmer, others from the collector Jonathan Rosen, who was a longtime business partner of Hecht’s. He and Hecht were charged in a 1997 Italian antiquities-trafficking case, though Rosen was never brought to trial. The Carlos acquired artifacts linked to him from 1984 to 1986 and from 2002 to 2005, and gifts of his to other museums have been repatriated. (A representative for Rosen, who did not return a request for comment, told reporters this year that Rosen was in poor health.)

In 2005, the Carlos hosted an exhibit of Greek bronze vessels, loaned from a wealthy New York couple who have claimed to collect “in good faith,” according to their lawyer. Two of the vessels featured in the catalog that Gaunt helped write have since returned to Greece, which said they were stolen.

To some academics, publishing research on artifacts with unclear or questionable origins is necessary to preserve knowledge. But others say that such scholarship legitimizes suspicious itemsenhances their market value, and fuels looting. Gill, the archaeologist, has a term for publications like Gaunt’s: “art washing.”

After stepping down as director of the Carlos, Anderson bounced to Toronto and then back to his native New York, this time to lead the Whitney Museum of American Art. And he was more convinced than ever that the antiquities problem was a time bomb.

Throughout the 1990s, the Association of Art Museum Directors, an industry organization, had already been encouraging its members to tackle another kind of tainted art in their galleries: Nazi loot. Then in 2002, Frederick Schultz, a former president of an antiquities dealers’ trade group, was convicted in federal court of selling relics stolen from Egypt. It sent a clear message that American dealers handling illegally exported goods could be punished for trafficking in stolen property, and the “chilling effect was instantaneous,” Anderson says. The day was coming, he suspected, when museums could no longer get away with claiming they didn’t know if works were stolen.

The year that Schultz was convicted, Anderson was the AAMD’s president. From a task force that he convened, the association issued its first guidance on antiquities acquisitions in 2004.

Revised in 2008 and 2013, the guidelines advise museums to avoid objects lacking proof that they left their country before the landmark 1970 Unesco convention, as well as to comply with countries’ export laws. Critics point out that museums are only asked to hold additions to this standard, not existing holdings, and can still justify exceptions. Others criticize the guidelines for putting un-donatable artifacts in limbo. Elizabeth Marlowe, director of Colgate University’s museum-studies program and chair of its art department, has proposed that university museums, free of the economic constraints of free-standing ones, are uniquely positioned to steward these objects — so long as their goal is to research and disclose their provenances, and to try to repatriate them.

By the time the first AAMD guidelines were in the works, Bonnie Speed, a museum administrator formerly in Dallas, was in charge of the Carlos. From afar, Anderson thought that dropping $10 million on Greek art sounded risky. Neither he nor Hirschel, the other former director, remember seeing Speed at any of the AAMD meetings they’ve attended over the decades. To Anderson, it seemed that “she was perhaps never aware of, or perhaps decided against becoming aware of, the protocols that were evolving in the early 2000s.” (Speed did not return requests for comment.)

As the Getty’s former antiquities curator and Hecht stood trial in 2005, Italian officials went knocking on the doors of American museums. By the end of the following year, the Getty was on its way to turning over 40 heirlooms, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts had relinquished 13, and the Met had agreed to return 21 — including the much-debated Euphronios krater.

The Carlos began facing questions about where it stood. For an exhibit in the summer of 2006, an organization restoring an ancient Roman villa loaned the museum a cluster of frescoes and sculptures. The arrangement echoed the loan program pioneered at the Carlos in the 1980s. Gaunt told the Journal-Constitution he was flexible: “The goal is to bring great work to Atlanta. You can buy or borrow.”

At the same time, the museum explained that it observed a 1983 provenance cutoff for acquisitions, the year that the United States ratified the 1970 Unesco convention, rather than 1970 itself. Gaunt also said that Italy’s strict antiquity-ownership laws were unrealistic.

“People [have] ignored the law because of a feeling that the laws were, frankly, stupid,” he told the Journal-Constitution. “There has been legislation on exporting antiquities since the 18th century, and none of it has ever worked because it takes no account of human nature.”

Gaunt had by then spent the $10-million fund but was still working on new gifts with the support of, among others, Michael Carlos’s widow. (Carlos had died in 2002, preceding his wife by nine years. Their son, who has also donated to the museum, did not return a request for comment.)

“There are fewer dealers, which is a good thing,” Gaunt told a reporter. “Auction houses are more circumspect. Documented objects are more expensive.” Yet he relished fresh victories, like reuniting the body of a Venus (nearly $1 million) with her head ($50,000).

“I still love the hunt,” he was quoted as saying, “and there is plenty to hunt for.”

When it arrived in 2002, the ancient Minoan bathtub became one of the Carlos’s most-distinctive attractions. Emory celebrated it as “one of three on display in America,” and the museum advertised it (“Anyone for a soak?” asked a 2016 Instagram post).

But inside and outside of Emory, scholars were growing alarmed about the murky origins of the tub — and about how little the Carlos seemed to care.

As a forensic archaeologist, Tsirogiannis researches international antiquities-trafficking networks and helps authorities track down looted objects. In 2007, he was working for the Ministry of Justice in Greece when the head of the Greek police asked him to take a look at something. A Greek middleman had shared a Polaroid of a statue of the muse Terpsichore, claiming it was in the Michael C. Carlos Museum.

On the Carlos’s website, Tsirogiannis recalls, he saw what by all appearances was the same sculpture — cleaned, restored, and presumably looted.

Tsirogiannis decided to check out the rest of the collection, which the museum was just beginning to digitize. Thanks to a partnership between the Greek and Italian authorities, he could cross-reference electronic copies of thousands of photographs confiscated from members of the illicit trade, including Becchina, the dealer in Switzerland.

Two items jumped out as matches, he recalls. One was the massive, 2,600-year-old pithos, which the Carlos would later disclose it bought from Phoenix Ancient Art. (A Phoenix spokesperson says that the company “has no knowledge whatsoever of whether or not the object was in” Becchina’s archives and that Becchina “was not involved in the sale or purchase.”)

The other match was the bathtub.

The Minoan larnax in the museum’s possession (left) and a confiscated photograph that suggests the object may have been trafficked (right). MICHAEL C. CARLOS MUSEUM; COURTESY OF DR. CHRISTOS TSIROGIANNIS

Larnakes shaped like rectangular, sealed chests as well as bathtubs have been found mainly in central and eastern Crete. In theory, the latter type could have also been used for bathing, since archaeologists have uncovered them from the ruins of both homes and tombs, Tsirogiannis says. But the Carlos’s larnax is so intact, from its structure to the fish painted on its inside, that he says he is “99.9 percent” convinced it was stolen from a tomb, where it had sat untouched for millennia.

On June 1, 2007, Tsirogiannis says, he told the Ministry of Culture of his findings. Greek media began reporting that the government wanted back the allegedly stolen larnax, pithos, and Terpsichore. At the end of August of that year, he says, he learned that Speed, the Carlos’s director then, had reportedly told the agency that she would be unable to meet in Atlanta that coming week. She also wanted proof of its claims before arranging a future meeting, according to Tsirogiannis, who says that was the last he heard about the investigation. Kim, the current director, says that “no photographs or other evidence were supplied to the museum in 2007.” The Ministry of Culture did not return a request for comment.

Museums like the Carlos “feel the need to own,” Tsirogiannis says. “They were acquiring whatever they could, not being afraid that they would have any problems in the future, because they didn’t have any such problems in the past.”

In 2008, Gill, the University of Kent archaeologist, began dissecting the case on his blogLooting Matters. An Emory spokesperson told him by email that “museum scholars and curators carefully research each proposed acquisition” and that the Carlos “will not knowingly acquire any object which has been illegally exported.”

Gill doubts that the vetting was quite so careful. “I think that the Carlos was doing what other university collections were doing, what other civic museums were doing,” he says, which is “seeking to build their collections without asking the serious questions about where the objects had been found and how they arrived on the market.”

“What efforts have been made by the museum to resolve this matter with Greece?” he asked in one of dozens of unanswered posts over the last 15 years.

At least one person at Emory was reading.

Larnakes shaped like rectangular, sealed chests as well as bathtubs have been found mainly in central and eastern Crete. In theory, the latter type could have also been used for bathing, since archaeologists have uncovered them from the ruins of both homes and tombs, Tsirogiannis says. But the Carlos’s larnax is so intact, from its structure to the fish painted on its inside, that he says he is “99.9 percent” convinced it was stolen from a tomb, where it had sat untouched for millennia.

On June 1, 2007, Tsirogiannis says, he told the Ministry of Culture of his findings. Greek media began reporting that the government wanted back the allegedly stolen larnax, pithos, and Terpsichore. At the end of August of that year, he says, he learned that Speed, the Carlos’s director then, had reportedly told the agency that she would be unable to meet in Atlanta that coming week. She also wanted proof of its claims before arranging a future meeting, according to Tsirogiannis, who says that was the last he heard about the investigation. Kim, the current director, says that “no photographs or other evidence were supplied to the museum in 2007.” The Ministry of Culture did not return a request for comment.

Museums like the Carlos “feel the need to own,” Tsirogiannis says. “They were acquiring whatever they could, not being afraid that they would have any problems in the future, because they didn’t have any such problems in the past.”

In 2008, Gill, the University of Kent archaeologist, began dissecting the case on his blogLooting Matters. An Emory spokesperson told him by email that “museum scholars and curators carefully research each proposed acquisition” and that the Carlos “will not knowingly acquire any object which has been illegally exported.”

Gill doubts that the vetting was quite so careful. “I think that the Carlos was doing what other university collections were doing, what other civic museums were doing,” he says, which is “seeking to build their collections without asking the serious questions about where the objects had been found and how they arrived on the market.”

“What efforts have been made by the museum to resolve this matter with Greece?” he asked in one of dozens of unanswered posts over the last 15 years.

At least one person at Emory was reading.

Cynthia Patterson joined the history faculty in 1985. A specialist in the social and intellectual history of ancient Greece — marriage law, the rights of slaves and women — her early research drew more on texts than the objects rapidly accumulating at the museum. For decades, though, she was a fan. “I remember just being astounded at walking into the museum to see something new and extraordinary things,” she recalls.

In 2015, after she became program director of ancient Mediterranean studies, she started teaching a seminar that introduced freshmen to the Carlos. Gaunt occasionally swung by with items for show and tell. The assignment should have been simple: Pick out works and learn everything there was to know about them.

But when students started Googling, their findings sometimes raised more questions than answers. “I began to realize how we had gotten this collection,” Patterson says.

Patterson suspected that the Carlos was not so different from the museums that were increasingly making headlines. As the Getty and the Met continued to part with problematic material, dozens more masterpieces were leaving Princetonthe Cleveland Museum of Artthe Toledo Museum of Art, and the Dallas Museum of Art. Cornell University forfeited a staggering 10,000 ancient tablets that were allegedly looted from Iraq. Again and again, these returns resulted from years of behind-the-scenes prodding, legal threats, and, sometimes, outright seizures.

One day, Patterson tried to discuss the undiscussable.

“One of my students gave a presentation on the Minoan bath tub today and in the course of her investigations came upon David Gill’s blog,” she wrote in an email to Gaunt on November 3, 2015. “Is this a real issue?”

Gaunt’s reply was brief. “We purchased it from a gallery in New York,” he wrote. “It is one of thirty or forty such items that have surfaced in the market and private collections over the last century.”

Patterson tried again, this time mentioning the Polaroid that was on Looting Matters for the world to see, the one that Tsirogiannis had first spotted in Becchina’s archives.

“Do you think that the photo (posted by Gill) of the bathtub in the Basel warehouse is in fact our bathtub before it came to the NY gallery?” she asked. “It does look very similar!!”

There was no reply.

Patterson, who retired last year, says that in “trying to make a little Met,” the Carlos had strayed from its educational mission. “This idea of beautiful objects and you just come and wonder at them, admire them, not ask questions about them — it’s not really what a university museum should be doing, in my opinion,” she says.

In 2018, Gaunt left the Carlos, according to his résumé. The university did not issue a press release for its departing longtime employee, nor did it acknowledge him when his replacement was announced. His résumé now lists him as a curator for the private collection of a member of Qatar’s royal family.

Speed retired from her directorship in 2021. The museum introduced its new head, Henry Kim, as bringing “a history of leading socially conscious change that resonates with the Carlos Museum’s own values,” including “ethical collecting.”

Kim, who started in August 2022, said in an interview that he couldn’t comment on the decisions behind individual past acquisitions. But he did not dispute the names flagged by The Chronicle as connected with the illicit trade.

“All I can say is that from our perspective today, in the same way that you see these as red flags, we see these as red flags,” he says. At the same time, he notes that an object’s past handlers are “just one part in the puzzle” of determining its legitimacy.

Kim says that the Carlos is continuing to research its items’ histories and publish them online. “As a museum today, when it comes to what we put on display, what we put out to the public, what we publish, provenance matters,” he says. The bar for acquisitions is also higher now. An object has to be legally exported or have a clear history before 1970. And even with a pre-1970 history, Kim says, it won’t make the cut if it’s believed to have been taken from a monument or an identified archaeological site.

As for the trio of antiquities that Greece has long wanted back, Kim says that the museum has had “dialogue” with that government “over the years.” He declined to provide details on the talks, saying they were ongoing. “My hope is that this will result in something that is right, sooner rather than later,” he says.

Under his leadership, the Carlos has already been the subject of one positive repatriation story. In December, it gave the FBI a tiny artifact believed to have been stolen from the Iraq Museum and sold in 2006 with false documentation, which Kim says staff research brought to light. The Carlos was thanked for its cooperation.

Patterson wants the museum to do a complete accounting of its past so it can chart a more honest path forward.

“How did we use the $10 million, what did we buy, where did we get them, and what do we do with these extraordinary, beautiful, valuable objects?” she says.

Visitors to the Carlos can no longer see the ancient larnax: As of November 2021, it’s been taken off display. But it remains in the collection, and in the public consciousness. Nineteen days after it disappeared from view, the Manhattan district attorney’s office announced that a billionaire collector had surrendered 180 stolen artifacts worth $70 million. Deep within a 172-page court filing was a passing reference to “a Minoan larnax,” one that’d been “trafficked” and sold “to the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University.”

The buried had resurfaced, not for the last time.

Stephanie M. Lee is a senior reporter at The Chronicle covering research and society. Follow her on Twitter at @stephaniemlee or email her at [email protected].