Oscar White Muscarella, Museum ‘Voice of Conscience,’ Dies at 91
Oscar White Muscarella, an archaeologist who argued vociferously that antiquities collectors and museums — including his longtime employer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — were fueling a market in forgeries and encouraging the plundering of archaeological sites, died on Nov. 27 at his home in Philadelphia. He was 91.
His son, Lawrence, said the cause was complications of lymphoma, vascular disease and Covid.
Dr. Muscarella spent decades in the department of ancient Near Eastern art at the Met, participating in excavations in Iran and Turkey and writing dozens of scholarly papers and catalogs, as well as several books. But his tenure at the Met, which had begun in 1964, turned contentious in the early 1970s when he sounded alarms about the museum’s acquisitions practices, especially its purchase of pieces of unclear origin.
He made headlines in 1978 with a paper that identified 247 objects or groups of objects in various museums as forged or of suspicious provenance.
The study provoked strong reactions, including from Sherman Lee, director of the Cleveland Museum of Art, who told The New York Times, “We believe what it says on our labels.”
“He is saying that everything is guilty until proven innocent,” Dr. Lee added. “What he is really after is that there should be no traffic in antiquities.”
Dr. Muscarella didn’t dispute that.
“I am against all buying of ancient art from dealers,” he told The Times. “If the objects are genuine, we’re buying plundered art; if they are false, we’re buying forgeries. And the public is paying for these forgeries or for these bribes to looters and public officials.”
Dr. Muscarella saw dealers, forgers, plunderers, private collectors and museums as linked in a self-perpetuating and damaging system. High prices paid by museums and collectors encouraged forgery and the looting of archaeological sites. Acceptance of dubious provenance made for inaccurate art history and fueled a black-market system. Museums and collectors (who were often the same rich people who financed museums) had a disincentive to expose forgeries because, among other things, it would make them look foolish for paying big money for fakes.
“If collecting stopped,” Dr. Muscarella wrote in his book “The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures,” published in 2000, “plunder would stop — certainly it would be mitigated — and forgery manufacturing would decrease. But these arguments are derided as naïve by the self-serving and partisan collecting culture, which is essentially a component of the forgery culture.”
Dr. Muscarella excoriated magazines and newspapers — The Times included — that glorified wealthy collectors in lavishly illustrated feature articles. As for the collectors themselves?
“Lust to appropriate ‘antiquities’ is lust for power to annihilate the immortality of a culture,” he wrote in “The Lie Became Great.” “Collecting ancient artifacts — antiquities — is inherently immoral and unethical. Collecting antiquities is to archaeology as rape is to love.”
Dr. Muscarella’s strong stands and strong language earned him plenty of 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, bringing several court actions and ultimately winning a ruling from a fact-finder in 1977 that ended the legal proceedings. In 1978 he was made a senior research fellow, and he held that post until retiring in 2009.
For all his detractors, Dr. Muscarella also had many admirers. Elizabeth Simpson, professor emerita at the Bard Graduate Center in New York, edited a 2018 volume of essays by dozens of them, “The Adventure of the Illustrious Scholar: Papers Presented to Oscar White Muscarella,” and upon his death sent her own version of his obituary to colleagues.
“He could be blunt and belligerent, offending those with whom he did not agree,” she wrote. “But he was respected even by people who did not like him, who sought him out for his opinions, with his encyclopedic knowledge of ancient art and culture and his honesty and utter lack of pretension.”
Oscar White was born on March 26, 1931, in Manhattan to Oscar V. White, an elevator operator, and Anna Falcon. According to an extensive biography by Professor Simpson in the “Illustrious Scholar” book, his parents were not married, and his mother soon left, abandoning young Oscar and his brother Bobby for a relationship with Salvatore Muscarella. Her sons spent time in an orphanage and foster care, until, in 1937, “Anna found the boys and ‘kidnapped’ them,” 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, where he was in the archaeology club, in 1948. In 1953, while studying at City College, he spent a summer on an archaeological dig at a Pueblo Indian site in Colorado, his first.
He graduated from City College with a history degree in 1955, then earned a Ph.D. in classical archaeology in 1965 from the University of Pennsylvania. By then he had already joined 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 incoming president, complaining of low wages, lack of advancement opportunities for women curators, and Mr. Hoving’s leadership 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 to fire Dr. Muscarella came the next year. The year after that he retained a lawyer, and the long legal tussle was joined.
One sore point involved a 2,500-year-old vase known as the Euphronios krater that the Met had acquired through a go-between named Robert Hecht, who had a spotty reputation and who said he was representing an Armenian collector. Dr. Muscarella was among those calling out the Met for buying a piece of dubious provenance.
“One must know where the vase came from,” he told The Times in 1973. “There may be other objects with it, if it came from a tomb. Without the place of discovery, it is impossible to reconstruct its historical context.”
And then there was the price — about $1 million, a whopping figure for the time.
“When thieves hear of these exorbitant prices, they naturally plunder tombs to get more loot,” he said in the same interview. “Can we blame them any more than the people who pay them or the people who buy their finds?”
Italian officials argued for years that the vase had been stolen by tomb robbers from a grave near Rome. In 2008, amid much fanfare, the Met returned it to Italy.
While at the University of Pennsylvania in 1957, Dr. Muscarella married Grace Freed, a fellow graduate student. She survives him, as do his son; a daughter, Daphne Dennis; a brother, Ronald; a sister, Arline Croce; and a granddaughter.
Today the art and collecting worlds are more conscious of the problems with trafficking in objects of unclear origin.
“Because this practice is now widely censured by the archaeological community, it may be hard to remember how widespread the collection of stolen antiquities, even forgeries, was in the recent past,” Lynn Roller of the art history department at the University of California, Davis, wrote in reviewing Dr. Muscarella’s book “Archaeology, Artifacts and Antiquities of the Ancient Near East” in the Journal of the American Oriental Society in 2017. “Muscarella’s stance as a voice of conscience for archaeological scholarship and ethical collecting may be his strongest contribution to the profession.”