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The Chalice

I never was able to get Dietrich von Bothmer to confirm the two-chalice theory, which, according to Thomas Hoving, meant another Euphronios was somewhere waiting to surface. Without von Bothmer’s help, where does one go to track down a lost Euphronios chalice? I had already found the one buried in the reams of Medici’s court papers. There had to be some other documentation hidden away somewhere.


In 2005, when the head of the archaeology lab tossed out the idea of offloading the files from the old thermoluminescence testing business, I had no idea what those boxes might contain. Since then I had learned how central the university’s lab had been to the antiquities trade before the department shut down its commercial ser vice. Giacomo Medici even said he had been a regular customer. When Professor Pollard’s injured arm prevented him from opening the lab’s attic door that afternoon, I missed a chance to comb through papers about hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts made of clay. The names of clients, Polaroid photographs of each object, and the lab’s conclusion of whether the vases and statues were genuinely ancient—all of this was for the taking.

These archives probably also contained records of privately held objects that had never been published or exhibited. Maybe a second Sarpedon chalice was among them.

I called Professor Pollard to say I would take the files off his hands.

“They’re gone,” he said.

Just before Christmas 2005 the lab had sent the entire archive, including the index, to be destroyed at a facility specializing in the disposal of confidential papers. The lab’s move from its Victorian row house to the modern science complex had triggered a discussion within the university on what to do with the boxes of papers. The university’s lawyers had advised the scientists to get rid of the files because they contained private information on who had tested artifacts, what was held by whom, and what was fake or genuine. Destroying the records was the final step in severing Oxford from a business it should never have had in the first place.

“It’s the end of an era,” Professor Pollard said.

I needed another source of documents to solve the riddle of the supposed second kylix. Luckily, von Bothmer did leave behind a written record. It wasn’t the diary entry of the dying man who wanted to make everything clear, but it was close. It was the body of von Bothmer’s scholarly work. I became obsessed with finding every scrap of scholarly writing that he or anyone else had produced on the Sarpedon chalice. And von Bothmer had been involved, in one way or another, in nearly every important publication of the cup, from its debut as “Anonymous loan” to the Getty, to Bunker Hunt’s collection catalog, to the 1990 Sotheby’s sale. Before Martin Robertson, the former Oxford professor, published the cup for the Getty, he asked von Bothmer to read the article. Robertson even quotes the Met curator through-out the piece. If von Bothmer knew at the time that this cup had a match, also by Euphronios, it is hard to imagine why he wouldn’t have mentioned it to Robertson.

The most compelling argument that there is just one Sarpedon chalice can be found in von Bothmer’s own words, buried in Appendix A3 of a Danish book on ancient pots. The appendices to Greek Vases in New Contexts contain excerpts of interviews that Vinnie Nørskov, a professor at Aarhus University, conducted over the course of her research with various curators, including Dietrich von Bothmer. She spent three days with him at the Met in 1997, from December 9 through 11, and in Appendix A3, her first two questions reveal just how central the elusive Sarpedon chalice was to von Bothmer’s career:

VN: What have been the most important acquisitions in your years at the Metropolitan?

DvB: First of all, acquiring is not like ordering from a catalog. And secondly, you do not regret pieces you acquire, but only those you do not acquire.

VN: And can you give me examples of such pieces?

DvB: One piece was the cup sold at auction in 1990 with Sarpedon. Since I was still in charge I had something to say, and we tried to buy the cup, having Robin Symes bid for the piece at the auction. We did not get the vase, which was bought by Giacomo Medici.

My jaw dropped when I first read this, long after meeting Medici and seeing his photos of the broken chalice. When I started my research, Nørskov’s book, published in 2002, was the only reference I found to Medici being the anonymous bidder at the 1990 Sotheby’s auction. And no book, until now, has revealed what happened to the Sarpedon chalice since. As for Hoving’s news of there being two such cups, the way that von Bothmer spoke longingly of the Hunt-Medici kylix—without referring to having seen a separate, nearly identical one in the 1970s—probably proves there simply wasn’t a second cup.

Conspiracy theorists (and there’s no shortage of them in the antiquities world) would have no trouble brushing aside this academic paper trail as inconclusive. Indeed, some of the evidence is contradictory. In 1973, Hoving described Hecht’s cup to journalists as missing its handles and foot, yet the Hunt-Medici cup was missing just part of one handle and its foot was attached, including the portion that bore Euphronios’s signature. This discrepancy would back up the argument for two different chalices. However, Hoving now recalls that the cup Hecht offered him was intact—as was the Hunt-Medici cup until it shattered in 1998—undermining the two-cup theory.

Could von Bothmer have known of a second Sarpedon chalice, yet was bound by some agreement with Hecht not to talk about it? Could be, but I don’t buy it.

Hoving, who spoke to von Bothmer, is convinced there is another lost chalice to find, so maybe it’s out there. But I also know that what makes Hoving a wonderful character, an inspiration as a writer and someone I am thrilled to have met, is his infectious sense of adventure and his insatiable appetite for having a mystery to uncover. He is predisposed to intrigue and to wanting his own exciting life story to get even more interesting. It still might.

Giacomo Medici’s odyssey also continued. The court cases, cancer, and financial troubles took their toll on his marriage to Maria Luisa. They filed for divorce and legally separated while still living together at the Santa Marinella compound. And on March 28, 2008, Italy’s Constitutional Court announced its decision that Medici couldn’t get his charges dismissed. The first signature at the bottom of the ruling was that of the court’s president, Franco Bile, who had applauded the Sarpedon krater’s return. Medici’s next chance would come with his appeal, a process that has not been resolved.

As a result, Object X remains a mystery. In the spring and autumn of 2008, Medici arranged meetings with Maurizio Fiorilli, trying again to find a way to hand over Object X in exchange for wiping out his 10-million-euro fine. Medici said he was still willing to throw in the Sarpedon chalice, too, if it would seal the deal. As the talks continued, the appeals court judges agreed to keep delaying his case. Medici, in the meantime, gained some freedom. On November 20, 2008, the Italian government issued him a new national identity card, which allows citizens to travel within most of Europe. Soon after, he used that document to obtain a passport. Italy couldn’t keep him prisoner inside the country indefinitely. He might even have an easier time coming up with his mysterious object if he could go abroad.

Medici has provided a few more clues about Object X: he once owned this Greek masterpiece and sold it to its current owner a decade ago for about $1 million. He could get his hands on it again within a day, but would have to pay for it. And it could be anywhere in the world, as far away as Australia or as near as Rome. Maybe Object X is the third Sarpedon vase by Euphronios.

Although ending the case matters a great deal to Medici, it has already exposed the urgency of the antiquities looting problem—not just through the evidence found in the investigation, but through all the unsolved mysteries the illicit trade has created about our past.

The scope of what is lost can be measured in a few ways, including the number of tombs that are lost in order for an illicit excavator to unearth a single prized pot. One Italian tomb raider cracked open 204 tombs over four recent years (a rate of one a week) and made a measly profit of $100,000, meaning that of the 1,764 objects he’d ripped from their archaeological contexts, at most one or two may have been of museum quality.

Many people share the blame, from the tomb robbers to the smugglers and dealers to the museum directors who spend tax-exempt dollars on art whose discovery has led to the loss of knowledge about our past.

The day after the Met’s now-former director Philippe de Montebello returned to New York from signing away the Sarpedon krater, he spoke to the New York Times and dismissed the importance of the vase’s archaeological context, saying that 98 percent of what is known about antiquity is from objects that don’t come from digs:

“How much more would you learn from knowing which particular hole in—supposedly Cerveteri—it came out of?” he asked. “Everything is on the vase.”

He was ignoring what any child who watches the Discovery Channel knows. Archaeology is about context and dirt and bones and written records and lab analysis of organic remains. In one case, archaeologists from the University of Pennsylvania analyzed residue on bronze bowls from eighth-century B.C. tombs in Turkey. They discovered the menu from a feast dating from the time of King Midas: spicy sheep or goat, lentil stew, and a fermented beverage made of wine, beer, and honey mead. Such information would have been lost if the site had been excavated without proper documentation and techniques.

Imagine if the same had been done with the krater and its tomb at Greppe Sant’Angelo in Cerveteri. Although the Euphronios krater may be beautiful, everything isn’t on it—especially after it was cleaned up and put under glass on Fifth Avenue.

Not that being under glass is a bad thing. It’s thanks to museums such as the Met that millions of people get to see great works of art. But the current debate that rages in the art world of “Where should these objects be?” dangerously misses the point. Italy, Greece, Egypt, and the rest of the source countries aren’t demanding these vases and statues because they need them in their own, native museums. They are doing it to shut down an illicit trade that thrives today as tomb robbers continue to crack open tombs.

Yes, the tombaroli digging that pulled the Sarpedon vases by Euphronios out of the ground is not a lost trade of the 1970s. During 2006, the year when the Met agreed to hand back the krater and other antiquities, the Carabinieri art squad found 216 new illicit digs around Italy and recovered 24,649 looted archaeological artifacts. And those are just the digs they found and the objects they managed to get their hands on.

The bright side is that the police believe the efforts to push museums and collectors to return illegally dug or exported antiquities has diminished demand from the richest buyers in the market, cutting the incentive for tomb robbers to rob. The numbers may tell part of that story: in 2007, the number of illicit digs discovered dropped 4.16 percent to 207, and the number of artifacts recovered rose 16 percent to 28,528. Although the police discovered even more clandestine digs in 2008, when that number jumped 15 percent to 238, they made it harder to traffic any illicit finds, seizing 44,211 artifacts, an increase of 55 percent over the previous year.

The pressure from Italy, Greece, and other countries seems to be having a profound impact on the antiquities market—giving enhanced value to artifacts with old, known histories, and devaluing objects that may have come from recent illicit digs. At an auction I attended at Sotheby’s in New York on December 5, 2007, a statuette of a lioness, barely more than three inches high, sold for a record $57.2 million. That was an auction record not just for an antiquity, but for a statue—whether modern or ancient. Why so much? It helped that the lioness, probably from Mesopotamia, had been on loan to the Brooklyn Museum since 1948.

Collectors are increasingly paying a premium for such provenance. At Sotheby’s antiquities auctions held in New York from December 2005 through December 2008, buyers paid 184 percent more than the catalog’s average estimate for objects that had known histories by 1970 or had records of being published, displayed, authenticated, or associated with a museum. That premium had been lower before Italy started its successful repatriation campaign, averaging just 129 percent from December 2000 through June 2005.

The argument against tomb robbing is a simple one: museums and collectors should respect laws against crimes such as stealing and smuggling. It’s not complicated, although it does get confused with other issues; today’s battles over recently looted antiquities get mixed in with the related demands by countries including Egypt and Greece for the return of artifacts taken centuries ago, such as the Rosetta Stone—which decoded hieroglyphics for the modern world—or the Parthenon marbles, both of which sit in the British Museum. That’s not quite the same thing as museums and private citizens who have built collections with artifacts looted in modern times while breaking modern laws.

When it comes to understanding the fruit of modern tomb raiding, the interesting question isn’t “Where should it be?” but “Where has it been?” These ancient works and the people they’ve touched have incredible biographies that reveal much more than any single painting on a pot. That’s particularly true with the two Sarpedon vases by Euphronios.

For the krater’s part, it didn’t stop moving after it returned to Italy: from the unveiling ceremony to the television studio to the presidential palace. Then, when the Nostoi exhibit transferred to a smaller space—in the Rome palazzo out of which the Trevi Fountain spouts its famous water—the Euphronios krater peeled off, together with the Getty’s painted marble griffins and ceremonial lekanis basin, and headed north to Mantua. There, Sarpedon took the spotlight as the grand finale to a blockbuster exhibit of more than 120 works, called La Forza del Bello, or The Power of Beauty, and subtitled “Greek Art Conquers Italy.” The krater, having undergone several identity changes already—from artwork in New York, to stolen property at the Rome Carabinieri station, to a symbol of Italian political cooperation at the unveiling, to TV guest, and to returning hero at the Nostoi exhibit—was transformed again, this time to an object of beauty. Now it was something bello.

From March 29 through July 6, 2008, the exhibit occupied most of Mantua’s sprawling Palazzo Te, which dates back to 1525 and was designed to resemble an ancient Roman villa. The show moved visitors on an itinerary that took them through the palazzo and its stables, until they reached the final work: the Sarpedon krater.

Set atop a black pedestal, it was enclosed in a glass cube that measured about six feet on each side. The cube itself sat on a hidden platform several feet above the ground. Surrounded by darkness, the spotlighted surface glowed orange. To the right, the Iliadverses detailing Sarpedon’s violent death covered an entire wall. This son of Zeus had never been displayed to such effect, perhaps with the exception of the June day in 1972 when the jet-lagged Thomas Hoving, beer in hand, gazed on the image of the bleeding corpse in the morning light of a Zurich garden.

At that moment, in this context, the krater really did display the power of its beauty, just as the exhibit title promised. But if anyone looked closer, at the white lettering pasted onto the floating glass cube, the krater’s meaning would transform again. In Italian the label read:


(Euprhonios vase)

Circa 515 B.C.


From Greppe Sant’Angelo in Cerveteri

December 1971

For the first time in its incredible journey, the Sarpedon krater was displayed alongside an accounting of its archaeological origins, right down to the date when Armando Cenere, Francesco Bartocci, and the rest of the band uncovered the treasure. With this context, the krater became more than just an object of beauty. It had a story—one that went back to New York, to Zurich, to Rome, to Cerveteri, and, long ago, to Athens. If you were to include the realm of myth, the krater’s story went back even further, to Troy, and the death of Sarpedon.

After Mantua, the krater returned to Rome for a couple months before making yet another overseas trip. The Nostoi exhibit inaugurated the new Acropolis museum in Athens. It took twenty-five hundred years, but Euphronios’s masterpiece made it back to the place where it was born.

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