Dr. Muscarella, a pipe-smoking, Sherlock Holmes-quoting rabble-rouser, didn’t care about angering his superiors, who unsuccessfully tried to fireplace him thrice and disrupt what grew to become a four-decade quest to show that many antiquities held by the Met and different museums had been stolen or pretend.
“This museum is likely one of the foremost plunderers on this planet’s historical past, and it’ll not cease it,” Dr. Muscarella, who died Nov. 27 at age 91, advised Newsday in 1995. “There are issues on this museum which can be plundered. It didn’t fall from the sky.”
After becoming a member of the Met in 1964, Dr. Muscarella spent years battling museum officers, together with the highly effective director Thomas Hoving, over labor points and pushback from his criticism. However after a court-ordered fact-finder in 1977 in the end sided with Dr. Muscarella, declaring he had not displayed “unprofessional and improper conduct,” the Met had no alternative however to maintain him on workers.
It was an uncomfortable association.
“I don’t assume I’ve ever spoken to Oscar Muscarella,” Harold Holzer, then the Met’s communications director, told the Village Voice. “I simply don’t perceive why anybody who hates museums would work in a museum.”
However Dr. Muscarella didn’t hate museums. He deplored what he referred to as “bazaar archaeology” — the neighborhood of morally corrupt museum curators, collectors and sellers who regarded the opposite means as they traded, offered and displayed looted or fraudulent artifacts. The one artifacts that museums ought to maintain and show, he thought, had been these collected and correctly documented by archaeologists.
“I’m in opposition to all shopping for of historical artwork from sellers,” Dr. Muscarella told the New York Occasions in 1978. “If the objects are real, we’re shopping for plundered artwork; if they’re false, we’re shopping for forgeries. And the general public is paying for these forgeries or for these bribes to looters and public officers.”
Dr. Muscarella first grew to become essential of the Met’s antiquities dealings in 1973 after the museum’s buy — for roughly $1 million — of a 2,500-year-old Greek vase from Robert E. Hecht Jr., a controversial vendor who was later indicted in Italy on costs that he dealt in looted artifacts. The statute of limitations expired earlier than the trial ended.
As museum guests lined as much as view the vase, questions surfaced about its worth and provenance. Dr. Muscarella nervous the piece had been looted and that its terribly excessive worth — curators at different museums appraised the vase at $500,000 or much less — would encourage comparable conduct by shady sellers.
Met officers disregarded the questions.
“Why can’t we simply recognize the vase for what it’s: an excellent object with sensible colours and a unprecedented composition?” Dietrich von Bothmer, then the museum’s curator of Greek and Roman artwork, told the New York Occasions.
Dr. Muscarella disagreed, telling the paper that his bosses had “abdicated accountability” and that they “ought to have checked out each attainable origin, of our vase earlier than it was bought.”
He was proper. Italian authorities officers stated the vase had been looted from the nation’s soil, and so they waged a three-decade battle to get it again. The Met lastly returned it in 2008.
Although he was ostracized by lots of his friends on the Met, Dr. Muscarella persevered in what grew to become a lifelong quest to reveal different looted or fraudulent artifacts. Talking at conferences and in media interviews, he steadily quoted his hero, Sherlock Holmes. One in every of his favorites was: “I by no means guess; it’s a stunning behavior — harmful to the logical college.”
In 1978, he printed a research alleging that 247 historical Close to Japanese artifacts held in museums or displayed in assortment catalogues had been of suspicious origin or frauds. Two years later, at a lecture on the College of Chicago, Dr. Muscarella stated none of them had been eliminated.
“Some say a public debate will not be the ‘gentlemanly’ means of doing issues,” Dr. Muscarella advised his viewers. “I don’t anticipate anybody to take my phrase as gospel, however any museum director who refuses to have a suspect object examined must be fired — it’s a betrayal of all the things he stands for. Such attitudes quantity to a corruption and destruction of the self-discipline, and make the director an confederate to a distortion of the previous.”
Dr. Muscarella saved digging.
In 2000, he printed “The Lie Became Great: The Forgery of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures,” wherein he catalogued greater than 1,250 suspicious artifacts around the globe. “If accumulating stopped,” he wrote within the ebook’s introduction, “plunder would cease — actually it might be mitigated — and forgery manufacturing would lower. However these arguments are derided as naive by the self-serving and partisan accumulating tradition, which is basically a element of the forgery tradition.”
Oscar White was born March 26, 1931, in Manhattan. His father, an elevator operator, and his mom weren’t married. As a toddler, his mom deserted him and his brother, who lived in foster care till 1937 once they had been reunited. By then, she was in a relationship with one other man — Salvatore Muscarella, marrying him in 1939.
Oscar excelled in class. He was admitted to Stuyvesant Excessive Faculty, a public however aggressive college-preparatory college in Manhattan, the place he joined the archaeology membership. After graduating in 1948, he briefly studied at New York College however dropped out and enrolled at Metropolis School, the place he studied in historical past. In 1953, he noticed a campus announcement for an upcoming archaeological dig at a Pueblo Indian website in Colorado and traveled there by bus to work.
After graduating from Metropolis School in 1955, he earned a doctorate in classical archaeology on the College of Pennsylvania, the place he met fellow graduate scholar Grace Freed, marrying her in 1957. Dr. Muscarella labored at dozens of archaeological websites around the globe.
“His work spans an space from Greece to Afghanistan, from the Neolithic to the Persian interval,” Elizabeth Simpson, an archaeologist and historian, wrote within the introduction of an essay collection about his work. “Oscar has persevered in opposition to formidable odds to turn into one of many occupation’s excellent archaeologists, within the broadest sense of the time period.”
Dr. Muscarella died at residence in Philadelphia, his son Lawrence F. Muscarella stated. The trigger was lymphoma, although Dr. Muscarella had additionally been in poor health with cerebral vascular illness and covid-19.
Along with his son, he’s survived by his spouse; a daughter, Daphne M. Dennis of North Wales, Pa.; and a granddaughter.
Regardless of the antagonism between Dr. Muscarella and his bosses, he remained employed by the Met till his retirement in 2009.
“He was largely excluded from departmental issues,” Simpson wrote. “He usually was not advised about acquisitions, gallery adjustments, conferences, newly appointed workers, or visiting colleagues.”
Nonetheless, Dr. Muscarella carried on along with his work.
“As anybody who is aware of him can attest,” Simpson wrote, “and as his life story exhibits, Oscar is to not be deterred.”