Robert E. Hecht, an American expatriate antiquities dealer who skipped in and out of trouble for much of his career, weathering accusations that he trafficked in illicit artifacts, including a 2,500-year-old Greek vase that he sold for more than $1 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, died on Wednesday at his home in Paris. He was 92.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Elizabeth.
An urbane world traveler with an often coy and seemingly imperturbable manner, Mr. Hecht began running afoul of the authorities in the early 1960s, when he was accused of dealing in looted art in Italy and smuggling coins out of Turkey.
In the case of the Greek vase, sold to the Metropolitan in 1972, an Italian judge, acting on a claim that it had been looted from an excavation site near Rome, issued a warrant for Mr. Hecht’s arrest; the warrant was subsequently revoked.
“I have never been involved in the illegal exportation of art objects,” Mr. Hecht declared to The New York Times in 1973, adding, “I have never spent one minute in a cell.”
The controversy over the vase — a vessel known as a krater that was used to mix wine and water and was painted and signed by the artist Euphronios in the late sixth century B.C. — lingered for more than 30 years, with claims and counterclaims and conflicting testimony.
Mr. Hecht repeatedly said he had handled the sale of the krater on behalf of its owner, a Lebanese coin dealer whose family had acquired it in 1920. The Italian authorities maintained that it had been illegally dug up and smuggled from an Etruscan tomb in Cerveteri, 20 miles northwest of Rome, in 1971. The Met finally returned the Euphronios krater to Italy in 2008.
By that time, Mr. Hecht had long been under suspicion of involvement in a conspiracy to steer looted artifacts through illicit channels to museums, including the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The investigation began in the 1990s, when a raid on two Swiss warehouses used by Mr. Hecht and one of his so-called conspirators, an Italian dealer name Giacomo Medici, turned up photographs of dirt-encrusted artifacts. Italian officials said the photographs indicated that Mr. Hecht knew he was trafficking in newly — and illegally — unearthed treasures. Mr. Hecht acknowledged doing business with Mr. Medici but said he had no knowledge that the dirt-covered artifacts were stolen.
In 2000, investigators found notes for a manuscript in Mr. Hecht’s Paris apartment in which Mr. Hecht describes different versions of his life as a dealer. In one version, prosecutors said, he all but admitted that the Euphronios krater was unearthed at Cerveteri; in another, they said, he wrote that he acquired it from a Lebanese dealer. The first version, Mr. Hecht scoffed, was written as a lark — invented, he said, to illustrate the Italians’ version of events.
After a trial, Mr. Medici, who was said to have supplied Mr. Hecht with the Euphronius krater, was convicted in 2004. But Mr. Hecht, whose own trial began in 2005, was never convicted. Just last month a three-judge panel in Italy declared that the statute of limitations on the charges against him had expired.
A similar ruling ended the trial of another alleged conspirator, Marion True, a former curator of antiquities at the Getty, in 2010.
Their cases, closely watched in the art world, led many museums to institute policies preventing the purchase of ancient artworks with murky provenance.
Mr. Hecht’s lawyer, Alessandro Vannucci, said afterward that the decision to end the trial did not do justice to his client, who deserved to be exonerated.
“He was, if not exonerated, never proven guilty,” Elizabeth Hecht said in an interview on Thursday. “In 13 years they couldn’t find anything to pin on him. So I say he was innocent.”
Robert Emanuel Hecht Jr. (his wife was unsure whether his middle name was spelled with one m or two) was born in Baltimore on June 3, 1919, into the family that owned the Hecht chain of department stores. He graduated from Haverford College and served in the Navy during World War II. Fluent in German, he worked after the war as a civilian translator for the United States Army. Then he began classical studies at the University of Zurich and as a fellow at the American Academy in Rome.
Mr. Hecht’s first marriage, to Anita Liebman, ended in divorce; their daughter, Daphne Howat, survives him. In addition to his wife, the former Elizabeth Chase, whom he married in 1953, other survivors include a sister, Nancy Campbell; two daughters, Andrea and Donatella Hecht; four grandchildren and a great-granddaughter.
“Bob was always someone who could let things fall off his shoulders, like a duck,” Elizabeth Hecht said when asked how her husband had borne such persistent and intense scrutiny by the authorities. “What he didn’t want to know about, he was able to ignore. He was very good at that.”