• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Mantle of Munchausen

King of the Confessors

by Thomas Hoving
Simon and Schuster, 365 pp., $16.95

A likable scamp” is how the headmaster of Eaglebrook described his pupil Thomas P.F. Hoving. And, to judge by this memoir—the first of a series to be devoted to Hoving’s greatest coups—a scamp he has remained. But likable? He seems too pleased with himself for that. “I had always,” he brags, “been able to lie convincingly.” “I had the ability to disguise my worst traits. I too could be devious without qualms.” Empty boasts. Hoving, as we will see, is the least plausible of liars. One of the puzzles of his career is why he continues to indulge in mischief that is so easy to detect.

By confessing to derring-do and dirty deeds—smuggling the Romanesque Annunciation plaque out of Italy, bamboozling trustees and prying open a showcase in the Bargello1 for no reason except masochistic compulsion (“ten thousand needles of excitement and pleasure pricked me”)—the ex-director of the Metropolitan Museum presumably hopes to entertain us, but the spectacle of a public figure making a public fool of himself is not edifying. Nor is the spectacle of a confessor to whom conceit comes much more easily than acts of contrition, and who leaves his more outrageous acts unconfessed.

Why, readers may wonder, should someone so concerned with bella figura blow the whistle on himself? Can it be out of revenge that he brought down the wrath of the Italian government on the Met by confessing to smuggling? It looks like that. Or does Hoving suffer from a m’as-tu vu? syndrome—if he cannot be the hero, he has to play the villain?

The m’as-tu vu? hypothesis is confirmed by John McPhee, Hoving’s schoolfriend, who wrote a perceptive New Yorker profile of him in 1967, unnervingly entitled “A Roomful of Hovings.” McPhee described Hoving at Exeter playing hockey “like a George Plimpton fantast,” mimicking the gestures and language of the pros—much as he does to this day, when he bicycles round Central Park, accoutered as if for the Mille Miglia. McPhee also describes Hoving playing poker at Princeton “with the green eyeshade doing the Cincinnati Kid. If anybody had had the sleeve guards he would have put them on.” All very engaging in an adolescent, less so in someone invested with civic responsibility.

King of the Confessors confirms that Hoving has not outgrown boyish role-playing. For instance, when he is taken on in a lowly capacity at the Cloisters in 1959, he turns into the parody of an ace curator, “peering at, sometimes even tasting, every work of art under my stewardship [in order] to comprehend what quality was all about.” (“Tasting”? Is this why Hoving is apt to compare sculpted faces to lima beans?) The juvenile fantast is even more in evidence when Hoving decides to become a demon art sleuth (“You had to be a detective, a part-time diplomat, kind of a spy,” the author recently said)2 in order to track down an elusive treasure—the early English ivory cross that is the main concern of this book—and thus further his career. This time he becomes James Bond, complete with, if we are to believe him, “a scientific portable field kit”: flashlight, magnifying glass with power lenses, Minox camera, Swiss army knife with scissors, toothpick and file, bottle of xylene, cotton swabs, and a miniature ultraviolet lamp. Characteristically Hoving lists everything except his trusty tape recorder—how else recall verbatim so much idle chatter?

The light the author throws on the cloak-and-dagger requirements of his job will fascinate those critics for whom the subsequent scandals and cover-ups at the Met recalled the scandals and cover-ups at the White House.3 Hoving, it seemed, was out to Nixonize the Met. True, the author’s controversial directorship is not the subject of the present book. All the same, King of the Confessors is of value to the extent that it establishes a Nixonian pattern to Hoving’s activities right from the start.

In confirmation of this we have only to read the passages in which Hoving describes how the Met’s director, James Rorimer, was led by the nose. “I had taken another step down the road to mendacity.” By his own admission, Hoving also misled the museum’s president, Roland Redmond, the trustees, and the purchasing committee, dismissing them as rubber stamps—“groggy…bored.” Not exactly the failings we would associate with a board that included Henry Luce, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Robert Lehman, and Elihu Root. The harsh things Hoving has to say about his superiors are the more ironical and graceless in view of the supportive way most of them behaved toward him twelve years later, when Nemesis finally overtook their beleaguered director. Bad enough that misplaced loyalty left the trustees tarred by Hoving’s brush without now being spattered by his pen.

However, the trustees get off lightly compared to the former director of the Met, thanks to the way Hoving inflates his own achievements at his predecessor’s expense. He belittles James Rorimer (for instance citing a colleague who described him as “pompous, stuffy, arrogant, jealous, conniving”), the sharpeyed medievalist whose chief mistake when he was director was to befriend Hoving and launch him on his rollercoaster career.

King of the Confessors correctly describes how Rorimer groomed his young discovery to become head of the medieval department at the Met, but plays down the All About Eve aspects of the relationship: how this “very ambitious smiler” (as Hoving described himself to Grace Glueck) switched his allegiance to the rising star of John Lindsay and left the Met to become parks commissioner. From this new eminence—the parks commissioner is ex officio a trustee of the Met—the former protégé was in a position to patronize his former benefactor.

At a purchasing meeting in May 1966, Hoving apparently advised against a possible acquisition. “Just because you’re our landlord you don’t have to tell us what to do,” the director remonstrated. A few hours later Rorimer was dead. In the months that followed, the trustees were subjected to incessant pressure—not least from Hoving’s fervent backer, John Lindsay—to appoint the newly ensconced parks commissioner to the directorship that he admits to having coveted ever since his first day at the Met. (“I was young, ambitious, aggressive, fiercely paranoid…about my competition, because the day I had walked into that place, I knew I wanted to be the director.”)4

Hoving proudly recalls the first of his great “discoveries”: the aforementioned Annunciation plaque. We read how a dealer called Harry Sperling sent a photograph of this relief to silly old Rorimer, who instructed clever young Hoving to reply that the Met was not interested in acquiring it. However, “a persistent yet muted bell” rang in the back of Hoving’s head. “Had I not seen something like the Annunciation once before?” After three days of brain fever in the museum library (Hoving’s account of this conjures up Edgar Wind had he been played by Peter Sellers), “my mind was numb; my body ached… I had spasms of double vision. My head throbbed.” Very late one night, as he was about to collapse, Hoving came upon the telltale “bulbous lima-bean faces” that he had been looking for in a “minuscule, slightly out-of-focus photograph” published in a not very obscure periodical. The photograph (which is in fact neither minuscule nor out of focus) depicted a group of plaques on a pulpit in the Florentine church of San Leonardo in Arcetri. “Hoving, you clever bastard”: Rorimer, you silly ass! Were it not for Hoving, the Met was about to turn down the missing plaque from a “masterwork of Florentine Romanesque sculpture.”

All this would be most impressive were it not so absurdly overdramatized and were it not for correspondence between Hoving and Sperling available in the Met’s files, which tells a somewhat different story. In fact, this correspondence, address and all, does not tally with the letters and a cable, to and from Sperling, quoted verbatim in King of the Confessors. As for Hoving’s identification of the plaque, was all that feverish research necessary, given that Sperling spelled out the whole story in a letter to Hoving, dated December 12, 1959? In the circumstances can we put much credence in the rest of Hoving’s account? How he and Rorimer went to inspect the contraband plaque “in a small garage on the outskirts of Genoa”—owned, appropriately, by “a swarthy man shaped like a fireplug”—and how they agreed to buy the marble, knowing that it would have to be shipped out of Italy illegally.

After blackening the late Harry Sperling’s memory by crediting him with a most uncharacteristic disquisition on the technique of art smuggling (familiar to anyone in the field from the lips of quite another gallery owner) and suppressing the fact that Sperling left his fortune and collection to the Met, Hoving moralizes as only he knows how:

What right had I to rip away from Italy a work of art which had been created within the very bosom of the land?… What were…Rorimer and I doing? What piracy were we about to commit? Suddenly I was shaken. But not for long…. Collecting meant taking risks. Collecting meant possession. Italy had six reliefs. A seventh would only mean administrative confusion…. I…tucked my ridiculous anxieties into the recesses of my mind, never to surface again….5

Instead of all this agonizing, Hoving might at least have mentioned the question of provenance. Again, according to information in the Met’s files, the plaque has a seemingly respectable source: it is said to have come from the collection of Baron van der Elst, the Belgian ambassador to Rome—something of a marchand amateur—who had already sold an object through Sperling to the Met. Moreover, there is no proof, apart from Hoving’s word, that the plaque was ever in Genoa, or that it necessarily left “the very bosom of [its] land” contrary to law.

Meanwhile the fence between the Met and Italy’s Belle Arte commission, which Hoving’s purchase of the Euphronios vase had left full of holes, and which the new regime has painstakingly mended, is once again in disrepair, to the extent that the Italian government is putting the important loan program which had started so illustriously with the “Horses of San Marco” exhibition “on hold.”

Not content with getting the Met into hot water with the Italian authorities. Hoving behaves with equal irresponsibility vis-à-vis the French, when he alleges that “a near catastrophe” took place in the Met’s vaults. Despite the installation of closed-circuit television, none of the Met’s staff apparently noticed that the Mona Lisa, on loan from the Louvre, was “sprayed by a gentle rain” from malfunctioning sprinklers “for more than eight hours.” Had this happened, it would indeed have been a catastrophe, for the Mona Lisa, which is on panel, would have become a sponge, and the French would have had as much cause for outrage as the Italians. In fact, as the operating administrator in charge at the time has testified, no sprinkler malfunctioned and not a drop of water splashed the Mona Lisa.6

  1. 1

    Whether the author actually did this is unclear. According to a staff member of the Met, the showcase in question is not “in an upper gallery” but on the main floor of the Bargello, which is always guarded. Far from having “no locks or keyholes,” the case has a keyhole which could never have been opened in the way that Hoving describes. Lastly, Hoving is out by 50 percent on the measurements of the plaque inside the case.

  2. 2

    In an interview with Sherrye Henry, WOR Radio, New York, October 19, 1981.

  3. 3

    While Woodward and Bernstein were busy exposing Watergate in the Washington Post, John L. Hess was exposing Hoving in The New York Times. Hess’s investigatory articles were later the basis of a book, The Grand Acquisitors (Holmes and Meier, 1974), which has been of great help in the writing of this review.

  4. 4

    WOR Radio interview with Sherrye Henry.

  5. 5

    Grace Glueck (New York Times, September 28, 1981) quoted prepublication proofs of this passage: “What right had I to rip away from Italy, clandestinely and illicitly….” The last three words were deleted at the request of the present director of the Met.

  6. 6

    Joseph Noble, now director of the Museum of the City of New York, says that this canard is presumably based on the fact that there was a slight dribble from an air-conditioner, which was in the vault but nowhere near the Mona Lisa.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print