Oscar White Muscarella, Museum Voice of Conscience, Dies at 91
Oscar White Muscarella, Museum Voice of Conscience, Dies at 91
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Oscar White Muscarella, an archaeologist who has loudly argued that antiquities collectors and museums — including his longtime employer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — are fueling a market for forgery and encouraging the looting of archaeological sites, died Nov. 27 at his Philadelphia home. He was 91.
His son Lawrence said the cause was complications from lymphoma, vascular disease and Covid.
dr Muscarella spent decades in the Met’s Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art, participated in excavations in Iran and Turkey, and authored dozens of scholarly papers and catalogues, as well as several books. But his tenure at the Met, which had begun in 1964, became controversial in the early 1970s, when he sounded the alarm about the museum’s acquisitions practices, particularly purchases of pieces of unclear provenance.
He made headlines in 1978 with a paper that identified 247 objects or groups of objects in various museums as forged or of suspicious origin.
The study drew strong reactions, including from Sherman Lee, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, who told the New York Times, “We believe what our labels say.”
“He says all is guilty until proven innocent,” added Dr. Lee added. “What he really wants is that there should be no antique trade.”
dr Muscarella didn’t deny that.
“I am against any purchase of antique art from dealers,” he told the Times. “If the objects are genuine, we buy looted art; if they are fake, we buy fakes. And the public pays for these fakes or for these bribes to looters and officials.”
dr Muscarella saw dealers, forgers, looters, private collectors and museums linked in a self-perpetuating and damaging system. High prices paid by museums and collectors encouraged forgery and the looting of archaeological sites. The assumption of dubious provenance led to inaccurate art history and fueled a black market system. Museums and collectors (who were often the same rich people who funded museums) had no incentive to detect forgeries because, among other things, it would make them look stupid for paying big bucks for forgeries.
“If the collecting stopped,” wrote Dr. Muscarella, in his 2000 book The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures, “the pillage would stop—certainly it would be mitigated—and the manufacture of counterfeits would decline.” But these arguments are derided as naïve by the self-interested and partisan collecting culture that is an integral part of counterfeiting culture.”
dr Muscarella criticized magazines and newspapers – including The Times – which glorified wealthy collectors in lavishly illustrated articles. And the collectors themselves?
“The greed for the acquisition of ‘antiques’ is the greed for power to destroy the immortality of a culture,” he wrote in The Lie Became Great. “Collecting ancient artifacts – antiques – is inherently immoral and unethical. Antiquity collecting is to archeology what rape is to love.”
dr Muscarella’s strong stance and strong language earned him many enemies, including Thomas Hoving, director of the Met from 1967 to 1977. Dr. Muscarella spent much of the 1970s fending off Mr. Hoving’s attempts to fire him and brought several lawsuits, eventually winning a fact finder decision in 1977 that ended the lawsuit. In 1978 he was appointed Senior Research Fellow, a position he held until his retirement in 2009.
Along with all of his critics, Dr. Muscarella also has many admirers. Elizabeth Simpson, professor emeritus at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, edited a volume of essays by dozens of them, The Adventure of the Illustrious Scholar: Papers Presented to Oscar White Muscarella, in 2018 and sent her own version of it after his death his obituary to colleagues.
“He could be outspoken and aggressive and insult those with whom he disagreed,” she wrote. “But he was respected even by people who didn’t like him, who came to him for his opinions, with his encyclopedic knowledge of ancient art and culture, and his honesty and utter unpretentiousness.”
Oscar White was born on March 26, 1931 in Manhattan to Oscar V. White, an elevator operator, and Anna Falcon. According to a detailed biography of Professor Simpson in the book “Illustrious Scholar”, his parents were not married, and his mother soon left young Oscar and his brother Bobby for a relationship with Salvatore Muscarella. Her sons spent time in an orphanage and with foster families until “Anna found and ‘kidnapped’ the boys in 1937,” Professor Simpson wrote, taking them to live with her and Mr. Muscarella in Manhattan. The couple married in 1939 and Mr. Muscarella adopted the boys.
Oscar graduated from Stuyvesant High School in 1948, where he was in the archeology club. While a student at City College, he spent a summer in 1953 on an archaeological dig at a Pueblo Indian site in Colorado, his first.
He graduated from City College in 1955 with a degree in history and then earned a Ph.D. in classical archeology in 1965 from the University of Pennsylvania. By this time he had already entered the Met’s Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art.
His first clash with Met management came in 1970, when he wrote a letter to Douglas Dillon, the museum’s new president, complaining about low wages, lack of advancement opportunities for female curators, and Mr. Hoving’s management style.
“Dillon was not pleased,” Professor Simpson wrote in the book, “and he showed the letter to Hoving, who was not pleased either.”
The first attempt, Dr. Firing Muscarella came the next year. The following year he hired a lawyer and the long legal battle ensued.
A sore point concerned a 2,500-year-old vase called the Euphronios Crater, which the Met had acquired through a middleman named Robert Hecht, who had a dubious reputation and said he represented an Armenian collector. dr Muscarella was among those who called out the Met over buying a piece of dubious provenance.
“You have to know where the vase came from,” he told The Times in 1973. “There may be other items with it if it came from a grave. Without the site it is impossible to reconstruct its historical context.”
And then there was the price – about $1 million, a huge number for the time.
“Of course, when thieves hear about these exorbitant prices, they raid graves to get more loot,” he said in the same interview. “Can we blame them more than the people who pay them or the people who buy their finds?”
For years, Italian officials argued that the vase was stolen from a tomb near Rome by grave robbers. In 2008, the Met brought it back to Italy to much fanfare.
While attending the University of Pennsylvania in 1957, Dr. Muscarella Grace Freed, a fellow student. She outlives him as does his son; a daughter, Daphne Dennis; a brother, Ronald; a sister, Arline Croce; and a granddaughter.
Today, the art and collector world is more aware of the problems involved in dealing in objects of unclear origin.
“With this practice now widely censored by the archaeological community, it can be difficult to recall just how widespread the collection of stolen antiquities, even fakes, was in the recent past,” says Lynn Roller of the Department of Art History the University of California. Davis, wrote in a 2017 review by Dr. Muscarella’s book “Archaeology, Artifacts and Antiquities of the Ancient Near East” in the Journal of the American Oriental Society. “Muscarella’s stance as the voice of conscience for archaeological scholarship and ethical collecting is perhaps his strongest contribution to the profession”.