Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Lost Chalice

44. The Lost Chalice: the Epic Hunt for a Priceless Masterpiece, by Vernon Silver

Anyone who pays any attention to art news these days cannot have missed the increasing number of stories about archaelogical artifacts being sent back from the museums where they have been housed to the countries from when they came. This book is the saga of artifacts stolen from Etruscan graves at Cerveteri in Italy, who profited, how they were dispersed, and the struggle to recover them.

Late in 1971, a few months before the effective date of UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, tomb robbers in Cerveteri, Italy (Etruscan Caere), dug into an Etruscan necropolis and uncovered a trove of grave goods, including fragments of a krater signed by the Athenian vase painter Euphronius, depicting the death of Sarpedon. This and other artifacts were ripped from the site, wall carvings hacked away. Sold to a regular buyer of antiquities, Giacomo Medici, who smuggled it out of the country, through him to the collector and dealer Robert Hecht, taken by Hecht to the Swiss vase restorer Fritz Bürki, the krater ended up at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, where blind eyes were turned to the question of its origin.

(Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Shortly after the million dollar purchase and all its attendant publicity, the existence of a kylix by Euphronius, decorated with the same subject, was revealed. It had come from the same tomb. But where was it now? That's one of the plot lines of Silver's book, which reads like a good thriller. If only it were fiction.

There are many villains here. One can, to a small degree, feel sympathy for those in poverty who know that what is buried deep in the ground can bring them a modicum of comfort. No sympathy can be felt for the dealers in stolen grave goods, and the collectors who buy them.

Most disturbing of all, however, is the attitude of people like those at the Met, who not only didn't care if an item they desire was stolen patrimony, they actually thought it didn't matter. Silver quotes Philippe de Montebello, the Met's recently retired director, as saying "How much more would you learn from knowing which particular hole in -- supposedly Cerveteri -- it came out of? Everything is on the vase." It is astounding to me that anyone with an ounce of concern about items such as the Euphronius kylix could fail to understand or care about the importance of the context in which it was found. To think that such an item exists in a vacuum, and is of value only for itself and in relation to the artist's other work, is abysmally short-sighted and narrow-minded.

Silver is right on the money when he notes that what was exciting about the find of Tutankhamen's tomb, and the exhibit of the artifacts therefrom, was the fact that it was the discovery of an undisturbed tomb. Despite the minor importance of Tutankhamen in the political history of Egypt, this find gave us a vast amount of information because the artifacts were found and recorded in situ.

Sadly, as long as there is arrogance and greed in this world, it is unlikely that even the most aggressive action against it will stop the theft, smuggling and sale of the cultural patrimonies of this world. Items looted during the American invasion of Iraq are still turning up, as collectors with more money than ethics pretend not to know.

From the New York Times: Michael Kimmerman on the Euphronius krater at the Villa Giulia

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