In Florida, a curator fired on suspicion of ill-gotten antiquities

Michael Bennett, curator of ancient Western art at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in St. Petersburg, Florida, was fired by the museum after organizing a traveling exhibition of Greek antiquities of questionable provenance.

The exhibition, titled “From Chaos to Order: Greek Geometric Art from the Sol Rabin Collection,” featured works from the Geometric period of ancient Greece (900 to 700 B.C.), a fundamental stage in the development of Greek art.

The exhibition was scheduled to be on view at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) after being hosted by the Rollins Museum of Art near Orlando and the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina. But the Denver museum requested a postponement of the exhibition to verify the provenance of the works, because some of them had been purchased from dealers involved in trafficking in stolen antiquities. The St. Petersburg museum then placed Michael Bennett on leave, then fired him a month later, without giving explanations.

The curator, who had worked at the MFA since 2010, told the New York Times that he did not know the reasons for his dismissal. In a letter obtained by the Timesthe museum’s lawyer wrote to Michael Bennett’s lawyer that because of his status, “he could be fired at any time without cause”adding however that “the MFA had more than sufficient reasons to do so”. In a press release, the museum also underlined the importance “to meet the highest industry standards in a changing world”.

The 57 works in the exhibition all belonged to Sol Rabin, a collector, who had built his collection under the direction of the same Michael Bennett and the Harvard archaeologist, David Mitten (1935-2022). Sol Rabin is chairman of the Harvard Art Museums’ Committee on Ancient Art. Only three of the works had previously been exhibited publicly, making the exhibition unique.

Most of the works in the exhibition lacked proof of provenance and some had passed through the hands of antiquities dealer Robert E. Hecht (1919–2012), who faced smuggling charges in Italy and was suspected of running an international trade in ancient art since the 1950s.

The Denver museum has undoubtedly erred on the side of caution in this situation, as the institution is at the heart of a scandal regarding its collection of antiquities from Cambodia. In 2021, the museum had to return four looted Cambodian sculptures, linked to the dealer Douglas Latchford (1931-2020).

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