King of the Confessors, by Thomas Hoving. New York: Simon & Schuster. 365 pp. In a playful mood Thomas P. F. Hoving once quipped that his middle initials stand for Publicity Forever. That statement has proved a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy, since the former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art continues to generate controversy the way other people breathe air.
Mr. Hoving was director of the Metroplitan from 1967 to '77, during which time his spectacular acquisitions, his bold expansion projects, and his commitment to the popularization of art kept him permanently in the limelight. Since he resigned his post at the museum Mr. Hoving has been consulting, appearing as a cultural correspondent on television, and writing books.
The first was ''Tutankhamun - the Untold Story,'' which created a commotion at the Metropolitan because of Mr. Hoving's disclosures about the museum's role in the disposition of the tomb's contents. Now we have the latest expose from his prodigal pen, ''King of the Confessors,'' the publication of which coincides with his investiture as editor in chief of the prestigious art journal The Connoisseur.
In this book Mr. Hoving vividly relates the story of his first great acquisition, initiated in 1960 while he was still a fledgling assistant curator of medieval art at the Cloisters, the medieval branch of the Metropolitan. The Bury St. Edmunds Cross, which Mr. Hoving attributes to a 12th-century English abbey of the same name, stands about two feet high. Intricately carved from walrus ivory, probably by a little-known artist called Master Hugo, the cross is one of the most splendid decorative objects to survive from the Middle Ages, and there is no doubt that Mr. Hoving's success in unearthing it and persuading James Rorimer, then the Metropolitan's director, and the skittish board of trustees to pay the then unheard of price of $600,000 to acquire it paved the way for Mr. Hoving's succession to the Metropolitan throne.
Mr. Hoving takes the title of his book from the unusual inscription on the cross, King of the Confessors, rather than the traditional King of the Jews, an anomaly which for various reasons convinced him that the cross was not a fake. The saga of ''the chase and the capture'' (Mr. Hoving inclines toward imagery of the hunt) makes him king of the Confessors in his own right, to the considerable chagrin of the Metroplitan. For example, Mr. Hoving reveals the questionable tactics he employed to procure the cross, which included concealing from the board of trustees its anti-Semitic content and his suspicion that the cross was stolen.
As if to feed the fire of disapproval, he also throws in combustible tidbits about the Metropolitan's acquisition of a smuggled Romanesque relief from a Florentine church and an account of his breaking into a glass case in an Italian museum to examine an ivory plaque. Despite the fact that Mr. Hoving allowed the Metropolitan's current director, Philippe de Montebello, to bowdlerize the scandalous impact of the book by deleting such inflammatory words as ''clandestinely'' and ''illicitly'' and subsituting ''remove'' for ''smuggle,'' the book remained so offensive to the museum that its administrators banned it from the bookstore.
But the reader, in turn, must confess that all these manipulations and machinations, recounted with such animation, make for a whale of a good read. The book has all the suspense and excitement of a thriller, and Mr. Hoving, who once compared art collectors to detectives, brings to Sir Galahad's quest for the Holy Grail the animating influence of a James Bond or a J. Gordon Liddy.
But beyond this superficial reading, the book has deeper levels of resonance. It is truly a ''behind the scenes'' look at the operation of the greatest museum in the United States. The book teems with fascinating lore about art scholarship. We learn, for example, Mr. Hoving's formula for becoming ''a professional connoisseur - an 'eye,' as they say in the museum business.'' And it is also to his credit that he can make his searches through dusty tomes for the meaning of the cross's inscriptions and the identity of its artist almost as exciting as the actual quest.
This is also a tale of obsession. At first Mr. Hoving's passion for the cross and his determination to possess it seem a metaphor for his overweening ambition. But as the cross works its uplifting influence upon his sensibility, his intense artistic appreciation transforms it from a mere conduit to power into ''a holy object and a holy presence.'' Here is his first reaction to the cross:
''I became enclosed in a pocket of silence. All light in the room seemed to fade except for a tunnel of yellow-white refulgence at the exact point where I stared - the circular center of the cross. Converging toward the center, vertically and horizontally, as if drawn to it, were two budding branches of a great tree. . . . The more I examined it in the first moment, the more I felt myself transported in some mysterious fashion into the shaded interior of my imaginary tree. I saw myself climbing easily. Steadily - grasping branches which were firm, yielding but tensile strong. And I ascended swiftly. Soon I could clearly see the sun bursting through the clouds in a brightening sun.''
Admittedly we are all involved in the chase and the capture in one form or another, and to a great extent it is our quarry that defines the quality of our pursuit. It can also be said in Mr. Hoving's defense that he is striving in this book, which he describes as a nonfiction novel, to objectify himself and his experience for the sake of universality. In a recent conversation he elaborated:
''The book is about rites of passage at the beginning of a career. It's about the stresses of being in a very big arena, the Met, being elevated very quickly and very young, and being able or not able to handle some of the pressures of that situation. It's personal, but it's also human, because it's not about collecting so much as it is about a situation in which a work of art happens to be the protagonist and collecting happens to be the game . . . that sums up, I hope, a lot of people's lives.
''The real problem with judging the book is moral rather than literary. The ethics of revelation, of the professional's confessional, are highly ambiguous, and the question the book poses is whether Mr. Hoving's disclosures are improper , indiscreet, or salutary. The standards of art acquisition were notoriously lax before the UNESCO draft treaty of 1972, which attempted, with limited success, to quell the flow of stolen and smuggled art treasures. Also, one cannot deny that art is a business that can be as unsavory as any other, despite its elegant trappings. Thus, it hardly seems fair to equate Mr. Hoving's account of past abuses with his sanction of them.
More troubling is his occasionally unflattering portrayal of his former colleagues at the Met (particularly his mentor Mr. Rorimer) most of whom are deceased. Mr. Hoving states that his lengthy quotations are based on the copious notes he took at the time, but the danger in not only quoting but passing judgment on the dead is that while they can't be hurt they also can't defend themselves. This leaves the author's version, especially when based on subjective evidence such as stilted, obviously reconstructed dialogue, open to challenge.
A mitigating aspect that makes Mr. Hoving's motives seem less self-serving is that he makes no bones about his own errors and shortcomings, either. Roland Redmond, president of the museum at the time of the cross's acquisition, fulminated elsewhere: ''My general reaction to the book is that it's disgraceful. The fact that he broke into another museum's case is shocking, but it's even more shocking that he comes out with it.''
Is it shocking, or is it redeeming, that Mr. Hoving can admit his human frailty - that he even thought the ''unthinkable'' when he broke into that famous case? Does confessing one's faults make one more or less guilty of them, when one does it in a spirit of aplomb rather than apology? Here we have the brash, brilliant young assistant curator at his most brazen:
''Arrogant, dreamlike as it sounds, I never had any real doubt that eventually I would become director of the Metropolitan. I recognized I had winning, if not particularly winsome, assets. I knew I could be quick, disciplined, tough, sensitive, and ruthless. I also recognized I had the ability to disguise my worst traits to most people. I too could be devious without qualms. I was devoted to hard work. And I was blessed with a one-track mind.''
Mr. Hoving's narrative suggests that he is not only a ''grand acquisitor,'' as he was called during his halcyon days at the Met, but a grand adventurer as well. While some may find his candor disarming, others will find it shameless. While there is no question but that the tone of his ''confession'' is one more of celebration than contrition, a fair reading of the text forces upon this reviewer the conclusion that the stir it has created is little more than a tempest in a teapot. In my opinion, Mr. Hoving's actions, however expedient, were not that reprehensible. He was simply conducting himself in the ''way of the world,'' the museum world, that is, and his only ''crime'' is that of the pragmatist who wanted to win, played to win, did win, and is proud of it.
The great French aphorist La Rochefoucauld once wrote, ''Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.'' Of playing that particular game no one can accuse Mr. Hoving, and it is his refusal, one suspects, that most outrages his detractors.