Peppe Montaspro’s crew gave Medici a call in December 1971, knowing he was a regular buyer of antiquities who had something of a lock on Cerveteri artifacts. Medici was told to meet up at an apartment on Rome’s Via Francesco Crispi, a street that runs uphill toward the top of the Spanish Steps, not far from Medici’s shop. Arriving at the apartment, Medici saw the magnificent krater, in fragments, and knew he could not pass up what would be the greatest purchase of his career.
Medici bought the krater, for probably around 50 million lire, or about $88,000. The tomb robbers then paid Cenere and Bartocci 5 million lire each, about 10 percent of the krater proceeds per person, for their work on the seven-man team. At about $8,500, it was a considerable cut for barely two months’ work, and much more than what anyone in their neighborhood earned in a year. Cenere was happy with the payout—until he learned how much the dig’s leaders had made, and how much the krater was really worth on the international market.
According to a slightly different version of events that police gleaned from confidential informants in Cerveteri, the tomb robbers also had other grave goods to sell, including kylixes, psykters, and panther statues, which they sold directly to Robert Hecht in Temperi’s home on Via Toscana, with Medici acting as middleman. Exactly which cups and vases were on the block—and whether they included Euphronios’s Sarpedon chalice—wasn’t recorded in the police reports taken at the time. Hecht has denied that this transaction ever happened, and police and prosecutors have never successfully brought charges based on that portion of the police intelligence. However, the essence of the story—that Hecht got his hands on terrific merchandise around that time—would bear out.
By contrast, the path that Euphronios’s Sarpedon krater took has become much clearer. After buying the krater, Medici photographed it with a Polaroid instant camera. Shooting regular film of a looted artifact and then taking it to a commercial photo shop would have been foolhardy. With the pictures in hand, he could move the actual merchandise out of the country while still being able to market the krater with the Polaroids. As a known antiquities dealer, it would also be foolish for him to try smuggling the vase out of Italy. Instead he turned to one of his trusted mules in the north, a man in Milan who took the heavy box of fragments across the border to Switzerland. There the krater would sit until Medici could find a buyer who could pay enough to bring him a hefty profit on his investment of nearly $90,000.
Medici didn’t need to go far. One morning in the final days of 1971, Medici came calling at the Hecht residence at Villa Pepoli. Robert and his wife, Elizabeth, had just finished breakfast when Medici walked in the door and presented them with the photos of the hulking, foot-and-a-half-high krater by Euphronios. Hecht couldn’t believe his eyes. His wife was so astounded she thought it might be a fake. “Is this for real?” Elizabeth exclaimed. The American dealer had to see the thing for himself.
Within an hour, Hecht and Medici had caught the next flight to Milan. They ate lunch at Le Colline Pistoiesi, a Tuscan restaurant that decades later would be the focus of the Mafia trial of one of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s closest allies. Then Medici and Hecht hopped a train to Lugano, across the border in Switzerland where Medici had stored the piece beyond the reach of Italian law. Once Hecht saw the fragmented krater at Medici’s secure hiding place—a safe-deposit box—the negotiations didn’t last long. They settled on 1.5 million Swiss francs, about $350,000 at the time, to be paid in installments. Medici was more than tripling his money.
By that evening Hecht had taken the krater to Zurich, where he dropped it off at the home workshop of Fritz Bürki, his faithful vase restorer, and paid Medici $40,000—all the cash Hecht could get his hands on. The vase was his, and he just had to come up with the rest of the money. For the moment, he could celebrate. Hecht returned to Rome to pick up his family and took them back to northern Italy for their Christmas vacation in the ski resort of Courmayeur, near the French border. As he would later recall in a handwritten memoir, it was truly a good vacation.
When he returned from the break, Hecht tackled the double task of finding a buyer for the krater who would make him a quick profit and getting the remaining money to pay Medici. Along with another dealer, Hecht had bought a life-size bronze eagle that they’d been trying to offload. They had approached the Met, the Los Angeles County Museum, and a museum in Fort Worth, Texas, all with no luck. Hecht got permission from his partner to take what they could for the eagle, and he went ahead and sold the piece to his competitor, London dealer Robin Symes, for $75,000. This extra cash would keep Medici happy as he waited for the final payout.
As for finding a buyer for the krater, the first signs were bad. Hecht tried Sotheby’s in London, but the antiquities chief there, Felicity Nicholson, gave the pot an estimate of just $200,000, much too low for Hecht. He tried another option. A Danish ship-owner he knew of might buy it on behalf of Copenhagen’s Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek museum. But that deal also fell through. The new year wasn’t starting nearly as well as 1971 had ended.
To get a deal rolling, Hecht sent a cryptic, handwritten note in early February 1972 to his old client at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curator Dietrich von Bothmer.
The note referred to an earlier correspondence the two men had had about Beazley’s Attic Red-Figure Vase-Painters, 2nd edition, the Oxford don’s definitive catalog of Greek pots painted in the style of Euphronios and his cohort. Then Hecht continued: “If something like p. 14, no. 2 were in PERFECT condition & complete, would it merit a gigantic effort, a really gigantic effort?”
Hecht’s puzzle made perfect sense to von Bothmer, who gathered all the relevant books and photos that he could and prepared to make the pitch to his boss, the young director of the museum, Thomas Hoving.
Hoving, who was then forty-two years old, had pulled off an improbable rise since originally joining the Met in 1959. After being promoted to head of the Met’s uptown Cloisters outpost, his hyperactive charisma, social connections, and political support of New York mayor John Lindsay won him a stint as New York City’s parks commissioner—making him, technically, the Met’s landlord. In 1967, after the sudden death of the museum’s director, James Rorimer, the Met’s trustees had hired Hoving back from city government to run the whole place. He did his best to make his mark, in part through acquisitions.
In Cerveteri, the tomb robbers were laying a puzzle of their own. Gossip about their amazing haul, including the Sarpedon krater by Euphronios, would surely start to spread. By the time they finished their work in February 1972, they’d had a good haul, and it was time to cover up the evidence, literally. The band’s last task was to refill the pit and tunnel, shoveling the soil back in. It would be as if the tomb never existed. By randomly mixing in dirt, debris, and archaeological remains at all depths and positions in the site, the tombaroli also completed their task of forever destroying the record of the artifacts’ original placements in the strata of history, which are so important to archaeologists for dating their finds.
Then, to throw investigators off their trail of the krater, the men purposely abandoned one of their finds—a sphinx made of travertine marble—inside the Greppe Sant’Angelo site. Chatter about the dig had been spreading for months, and it would help cool things down if law enforcement were under the impression that they had cracked the case. So the men tipped off the Guardia di Finanza, the finance police, which in a way was an offering to the gods, or a kickback to the cultural authorities. If the clandestine diggers were lucky, the discovery by the cops would end any investigation before it started. But they couldn’t have been more mistaken. Before the end of February, the Finanza organized an emergency excavation of the site.
The finance police didn’t have the same level of patience that archaeologists have. They began their excavation using mechanical diggers normally found on construction sites. These officers, who had nothing to do with the competing Carabinieri art squad that was expert in such things, peeled back foot after foot of soil that had been the roof of the tombaroli tunnel. By sheer muscle they sunk a trench five yards deep—as deep as the pit the clandestine diggers had dug—and exposed a section of the ridge face that was dotted with tomb openings.
The spot where the Finanza dug took them right to the front of the decorated false door that the tomb robbers had mutilated with their hammers. And in front of the door, they found the winged sphinx the men had left, along with what appeared to be the detached, curly-haired head of the creature. The finance police, working with Italian state archaeologists whom they had called to the scene, also unearthed a rough statue of a lion, a virtual twin to the five-hundred-pound creature the tombaroli had found and sold months before. As they gathered their evidence, the investigators hauled up a mix of archaeological flotsam and jetsam: from stone carvings of two bearded heads to pieces of tombstones that bore fragments of the names of the dead, forever disassociated from their original resting places.
In all, the Finanza took possession of more than seven hundred bits of bronze statues and pottery, which the robbers had discarded, and turned those over to the state antiquities authority. Peppe’s gang had already gotten everything that mattered to them. Or so they thought. One of the other hazards of digging without proper archaeological techniques is that a tomb robber is bound to leave behind a fragment or two of ancient pottery. Inconveniently for Peppe and his men, they had left behind a few fragments they shouldn’t have.
The morning after von Bothmer received Hecht’s coded note, he walked into Hoving’s office at 9:00 A.M., a minute after the Met director had gotten there himself. The curator read the note to Hoving and then, following the clues, opened the Beazley tome to page 14. Figure number 2 was a Euphronios. Hoving knew it well: it was the Louvre’s fragmentary krater on which the Athenian master had painted Heracles in a wrestling match. If Hecht’s message was to be understood correctly, his reference to “something like” the fragmentary Louvre krater, but “in perfect condition,” meant that he had a complete krater by Euphronios to sell, the likes of which had not been seen for thousands of years.
The men from the Met were interested, but Hecht was indulging his competitive side at a tennis camp in Spain. Hoving let the deal percolate. Von Bothmer, however, whose passion for vases had been kindled by Euphronios decades before, couldn’t hold back. He sent word to Hecht that they wanted to know the price. Then, a month later, in March 1972, Hecht made his next move. The antiquities dealer wrote to von Bothmer, but the somewhat cryptic pitch was clearly intended for von Bothmer’s boss, Hoving:
Regarding p. 14 of Jackie Dear’s red I made a hint asking if you and your trusted associates would make a super gigantic effort. Now please imagine this broken, but COMPLETE and in PERFECT STATE—by complete I mean 99 44/100% and by “perfect state” I mean brilliant, not weathered. It would hardly be incorrect to say that such a thing could be considered the best of its kind—I don’t say that necessarily it is, but…it’s hard to find competitors.
Assuming the first part of above para. to be the case, would it be able to be considered in terms of a specific painting (as, i.e. more or less the flags at that beach resort in France by Monet or someone, rather than a pot). The equivalent might be available and I would then discuss it with you. But if a priori the trusted ones would think in terms of pots, it would be best not to begin.
Hoving could figure this one out himself. “Jackie” was John Beazley, and “red” was a red-figured krater. The beach resort by Monet was Terrasse à Sainte-Adresse, for which the Met had paid $1.4 million in 1967. Hoving laughed with disbelief, because Hecht actually seemed to be asking $1.4 million for a Greek vase—about ten times the highest price previously paid for an ancient ceramic pot. He told von Bothmer to press Hecht for photos and further specifications.
It turned out that Hecht had commissioned his restorer, Bürki, to do a rough rebuilding of the krater’s many fragments. In his Zurich studio, Bürki was lightly gluing the pieces together so that the vase would stand on its own. It was a jigsaw puzzle in three dimensions, with little slivers missing here and there that he filled in with tiny bits of red plastic. On Hecht’s orders, Bürki didn’t do a final glue job and he didn’t paint in the hairline cracks with black ink the way he would on a finished product. Hecht wanted von Bothmer and Hoving to get an honest look at the vase. And because the puzzle really did appear to come together more than 99 percent complete, the honest look was sure to win Hecht a high price.
In a small town like Cerveteri, it’s hard to keep the news of a huge haul quiet. The tombaroli who uncovered the Euphronios krater hadn’t gotten rich, but they had enough lire to go on shopping sprees, and their neighbors noticed at least one new car cruising the streets of Cerveteri. That, combined with the finance police’s discovery of the marble sphinx and other artifacts abandoned at Sant’Angelo, caused the cultural authorities to deduce that this was a patch of land they should get to know a little better.
Under the 1939 antiquities law that declared all ancient artifacts found on Italian soil the property of the state, the government had broad authority to take possession not just of movable objects, but of land, too. Italy could take over terrain on a temporary basis to make sure none of its underground property was stolen or mistreated, or it could grab real estate on a permanent basis, paying compensation to the owners.
The archaeological superintendency for Etruscan lands around Rome, led by Mario Moretti, suspected that archaeological artifacts were “hidden underground” on six hectares—about fourteen acres—and on March 30, 1972, the Ministry of Public Instruction notified the Piscini family that their land was being put under an archaeological vincolo. The government had essentially landmarked the semiwild terrain. The owners couldn’t legally build anything there without special permission.
Perhaps more important, Moretti and his protégé in charge of Cerveteri—Giuseppe Proietti—were keeping an eye on what would soon unfold at the site.
Hecht had to wait until the end of the spring before the krater was fixed and photographed, and finally on a Friday at the start of June 1972, he flew to New York with the pictures. Von Bothmer was at his country house in Centre Island, at Oyster Bay on Long Island’s north shore, and invited his art-dealer friend out for the weekend. Once inside, he handed over the black-and-white prints to the eager curator. “The Met certainly needs to come into possession of this,” von Bothmer let loose.
With his mission already accomplished, Hecht turned his attention to the von Bothmer family. The curator had married Joyce Blaffer, the widow of a French marquis and daughter of Robert Lee Blaffer, a cofounder of Humble Oil, which became part of Exxon. Hecht played tennis against von Bothmer’s pretty stepdaughter, Diane, and then took a dip in the pool with the whole family, which included von Bothmer’s precocious son, Bernard, who at about seven years old was already fluent in the arcane details of Greek mythology. Afterward, von Bothmer’s wife served dinner, and Hecht spent the night at the house. First thing on Monday, he and von Bothmer drove to the museum together to show the pictures to Hoving.
The Met’s director liked what he saw, but seeing pictures was only a first step. Hoving told von Bothmer he wanted to see the vase in person. To do so, they’d have to travel to Zurich, where Hecht had been keeping the pot at Bürki’s lab. Hoving flew from New York to Zurich with von Bothmer, who was so consumed with excitement over seeing the new Euphronios that he couldn’t shut up during the flight. For four hours von Bothmer yammered on, first about Hecht—presumably to assuage any possible doubts Hoving had about making a major purchase from the dealer—and then about Euphronios and vase painting of the early 500s B.C.
What kept Hoving awake, at least for a while, was von Bothmer’s description of how Euphronios had managed to paint the fine lines on the krater with dull, grayish glazes that kept the eventual colors invisible as he worked on the wet clay. “Hundreds upon hundreds of never-overlapping lines, the hair, the outlines of the bodies, he achieved all this complexity—much more than the thousands of lines engraved on a ten-dollar bill-without ever seeing clearly what he’d just drawn,” von Bothmer told his incredulous boss.
“Dietrich, you’re shitting me,” Hoving said before dozing off for a half hour—the only sleep he’d get before having to negotiate what would be the most important acquisition of his career.
As he dozed, Hoving couldn’t have dreamed of how the master painter and potter used ancient alchemy to bring to life the krater that awaited them in Zurich—and its matching kylix wine cup, which Hoving would soon encounter, too.
Euphronios lived in the most dramatic political times in the story of Athens and the world, seeing firsthand the birth of democracy. In the world of art, the Greek master led his own revolution, a creative flourishing that historians say was unrivaled until the Renaissance, some two thousand years later. Euphronios’s timing was perfect. For hundreds of years, vase makers had produced unrealistic depictions on their pots, using a color scheme in which the people were painted in black on the orange background of the clay pots. The effect was a backlit silhouette, where the figures had less life to them than their golden surroundings.
Then, shortly after 550 B.C., potters in Athens invented a way to draw black lines on the local red pottery, filling in the background with black and reversing the centuries-old black-figure effect. The resulting red-figure technique brought vase painting to life.
By coincidence, at this same time, Peisistratus, an Athenian tyrant, ordered that Homer’s epics, which were recited orally and had spun out into several different versions, be committed to writing. Athenians suddenly had a standard version of the Iliad and Odyssey, on paper.
Inspired by the works of Homer—and armed with a vase decoration technique that allowed the clay’s natural color to shine through to represent the tanned bodies of gods and warriors in more realistic colors—Euphronios and his cohorts established history’s earliest known “school” of art. They worked together in a part of Athens called the Kerameikos—a name taken from the word keramos, or clay, from which our “ceramic” is derived. Euphronios and his coterie of painters are known today as the Pioneers for the mark they made by popularizing the red-figure style. A dozen painters from the group have been identified from their inscriptions on vases—some of them inscriptions about one another, accompanied by pictures of them partying together, wine cups in hand. By around 520 B.C., the fiercely competitive Euphronios was beginning his career, perfecting his technique and drawing inspiration from the Homeric account of Sarpedon’s death. Euphronios may have still been in his late teens when he painted the first of his two known works portraying Sarpedon. For this first try, he started small, with a dainty kylix wine chalice.
In this ancient art, the clay was the thing, providing everything a painter and potter needed—including the substances that could create all the colors on a vase. Attic clay—the clay of Athens—contains iron, which gives it a reddish brown color when fired in a kiln. The clay used to make Athenian pots was essentially rusty. And a kylix, the most delicate vase in the Athenian repertoire, required the finest grade of this clay. On a day somewhere around 520 B.C., Euphronios set about making such a chalice.
Once the clay was selected, a colleague of Euphronios’s, who would actually make the underlying cup, placed the moist lump on his potter’s wheel, a disk probably made of stone, wood, or terra-cotta. Unlike pottery wheels commonly known today that allow the potter to move the wheel by kicking an attachment underneath the shaft, these had to be turned by hand. A boy, probably an apprentice, sat on the ground and spun the wheel with his hands. As the wheel picked up speed with the hunk of clay at its center, the potter pressed his thumbs into the mass to create the beginnings of a vessel that rose upward as the force of the spinning pushed outward into the potter’s hand. After forming the wide-rimmed cup, they used a glue of wet clay to add a short stem and base, along with two handles that flared from opposite sides of the cup like wings. And then the kylix was stored in a damp room, to harden but not completely dry.
Next came the decoration von Bothmer gushed about. Euphronios and his cohort could “paint” their vases without using a single drop of pigment.
The magic began when Euphronios mixed the glazes that would become the black portions of the cup’s decoration. He started with the already purified clay that his workshop used for potting its vases, and then he purified it once more in a glass container, using a process of sedimentation. Impurities such as sand sank to the bottom. At the top floated a layer of the finest particles of clay, suspended in water. That would become the glaze.
But first, Euphronios drew the design’s outline, possibly with a charcoal pencil, on the leather-hard but still slightly moist clay cup. The process was akin to painting a fresco on wet plaster, so he had to work fast. The clock was ticking as the surface of the kylix began to dry. The painter sat in a chair with the blank cup on his lap, the base at his knees. On the inside of the cup, known as the tondo, he sketched out a simple floral design of eight palm branches, known as palmettes. During a drinking party, this inside part of the kylix would be obscured by wine, so there was no need for Euphronios to waste a dramatic tableau there.
The outside surface of the cup, however, would be seen by all, whether during the heavy-drinking events known as “symposia,” or on display in the home of a faraway foreign collector or in the burial chamber of a rich man’s tomb. The two handles poking out of either side of the cup neatly divided Euphronios’s canvas into two sides. One side would be the front, to which he would dedicate his greatest effort. The other would be the back, still painted with care, but in a rush to beat the clock as both the pot and the paint dried.
As he sketched, the outlines of a melancholy scene from the Trojan War emerged. It was already some seven hundred years after the fabled battles, and Euphronios began to draw what is today the first known depiction of the death of Sarpedon. He depicted the warrior prince naked, with a wound to his chest, a full beard, rippling abdominal muscles, and thick eyelashes. The artist drew the deity Death dressed in the disguise of a soldier and carrying a shield, grabbing Sarpedon’s arm and heaving him over his shoulder. Sleep, dressed the same, grabbed Sarpedon’s legs.
Turning his attention to the back of the cup—and keeping track of the time—Euphronios sketched out the less dramatic scene of a pyrrhic dance, a ritual performed in armor. In a final touch to his outline, the artist filled in the spaces near the handles with designs of flowers and palm fronds, and then he started to paint.
Euphronios’s glazes were mostly made of clay, but each of the several mixtures would yield a unique result. The thicker glazes would produce the darkest black colors, which were used to outline the figures of deities and warriors, and the thinner ones would produce the translucent browns used to represent hair and other delicate details. He had paintbrushes for the thin glazes, but for the viscous ones he probably had a contraption similar to a pastry chef’s icing bag, which he could squeeze as if he were decorating a birthday cake. For color highlights, he also had at his disposal red ocher to depict blood.
As he painted, Euphronios really was working blind, for the different gray glazes would only turn the correct colors in the kiln. He had to imagine what it would all look like.
When he finished coloring in the cup, Euphronios added a personal touch that was, at the time, revolutionary. He signed the vase. The painter asserted his authorship of the kylix by doing something that’s commonplace in the millennia that have since come and gone. On the foot of the cup, along the outside rim, he wrote in Greek, “Euphronios Egraphsen.” Put bluntly, he said, “Euphronios Painted This.” Beautiful artifacts had been made by talented artisans for thousands of years, but only until the time of Euphronios and a few of his Athenian predecessors had such works been thought of as art to which their creators should attach their names. The entire Western concept of the artist was just beginning to come to life.
To finish off the chalice, and bring the colors into existence, Euphronios just needed to manage the alchemy of the kiln and its own intricate chemistry.
Inside the hot oven, which had ample air to feed the fire, the clay oxidized, or rusted, turning the whole cup red. Then the kiln’s operator plugged up the furnace’s air supply. The fire needed oxygen, which it sucked away from the surface of the chalice, causing the whole pot to turn black. The fire burned so hot that it melted the glazes into hard, glassy shells. When the craftsmen pulled out the plug, letting air rush back in, the oxygen tried to combine again with the surface of the cup. However, it could only do so on the parts that hadn’t become hardened. The glazed parts retained their black color, while the unglazed portions turned red again. For the first time, the picture of Sarpedon came into view.
A week later, after being allowed to cool, the cup was finished. But this Sarpedon chalice was just the start of Euphronios’s tribute to the fallen Lycian prince.
A few years later the Athenian painter would reach the peak of his artistry by creating the chalice’s bigger twin, revisiting the death of Sarpedon with a grand krater for mixing wine and water. Around 515 B.C., a colleague of Euphronios’s named Euxitheos potted the hefty wine vat in sections and stuck them together with clay slip. This type of krater later became known as a calyx krater because the outward sweep of its rim made it resemble a calyx, the inside of a flower. Then Euphronios did his best to re-create the drama of his Sarpedon kylix on this grander canvas. The result is almost unanimously considered the most perfect Greek vase, in both its proportion and painting.
This was the pot Hoving would see once he awoke from his nap above the Atlantic.
Before they landed that morning, on June 27, 1972, Hoving had one last question about the vase that awaited them.
“Dietrich, what’s your guess on the origin of this astonishing krater? Can’t be very likely it’s been sitting around on some English Lordy’s mantelpiece after great-grandfather got it on the Grand Tour in the eighteenth century, is it?”
Von Bothmer fell silent, and Hoving decided that this would be the last time they would speak about where the krater had really come from.
Hoving and von Bothmer took a taxi to Bürki’s suburban Zurich house. Hoving’s second in command at the Met, Theodore Rousseau Jr., had traveled separately and arrived soon afterward. Hecht and Bürki had been waiting for the men from the Met and escorted them inside the home, which doubled as Bürki’s workshop. In the dining room, Hoving saw the krater sitting on a table, but he averted his eyes. He wanted his first impression to be in broad daylight. “Take it outside,” he said, walking out into Bürki’s garden. He grabbed a cold beer and, when the vase was in place, turned around to soak in the sight. As he circled the krater, Hoving gazed at Sarpedon’s nude body, spouting blood, his teeth clenched in a final agony. “No figure of Christ on the cross I’d ever seen matched this image,” Hoving, a medieval art historian by training, later recalled in his memoirs. He vowed to himself that he would get this vase. “This was the single most perfect work of art I had ever encountered.”
Hoving sat down and blurted, “Sublime!” He wasn’t able to play the role of cool haggler. Hoving took Hecht aside and admitted to him that this was the most beautiful work of art he’d been offered since he’d become director of the museum.
Von Bothmer circled the krater, describing it aloud and picking out details. He pointed out an inscription, Leagros Kalos—“Leagros is beautiful”—the same inscription on the krater in Berlin that launched von Bothmer’s career during a boyhood museum visit. The Leagros inscription dated the vase to between 520 and 510 B.C., von Bothmer said.
Then the negotiations began. They broke for lunch, with Hecht taking them to Rotisserie de la Muette where they ate grilled beefsteak, Hecht later recalled. (Hoving remembered the lunch in his memoirs as being at a Mövenpick fast-food restaurant.) The American dealer said the Met could have the krater for $1.3 million. Hoving countered that if Hecht would take just $850,000, he could have a registered check to him in a week. Otherwise, the museum was too strapped for cash to come up with any more.
Then Hecht made a suggestion that set in motion a series of events that would make a deal possible. Hecht said he’d give Hoving the krater, plus $350,000, in exchange for two collections of ancient coins that he’d heard the Met was thinking of selling anyway. What Hoving didn’t know was that three weeks earlier von Bothmer had told Hecht that the Met was on the verge of putting its Durkee and Ward collections of Greek and Roman coins up for sale through a Zurich firm. And, in turn, what Hecht didn’t know is that the offer he’d just made—of the krater plus cash for the whole lot of coins—valued the coins at much more than the price Hoving was about to accept for the coins.
Hoving, realizing he could get more for the coins, would cancel the cheaper Zurich sale and get Sotheby’s in London to guarantee the higher price he could now get. In the meantime, Hoving knew he had to raise the touchy issue of the krater’s provenance, no matter how uncomfortable it had made von Bothmer earlier that morning.
“My Finnish grandfather has owned this vase for seventy-five years,” Hecht said and then laughed. “Really. The owner has had it—in pieces—since before the First World War, I suppose around 1914.”
Hoving asked for a name.
“Dikran Sarrafian. Dikran is an antiquities dealer in Beirut.”
Hoving said he doubted this story, and Hecht continued with a tale of how Sarrafian had kept the vase fragments in a shoe box, but because Beirut was getting dangerous, had decided to consign the disassembled pot to Hecht. Hoving didn’t buy this, but that didn’t mean he wouldn’t buy the krater. Hoving told Hecht he could have $1 million for the Euphronios krater—$850,000 in cash and the rest in sculptures from the Met’s storeroom, to be selected by von Bothmer.
Hecht said he didn’t think Sarrafian would take less than $1.3 million, but he would check. The price was surely negotiable, Hecht said, especially if the Met could come up with the cash quickly. Time was money; the U.S. dollar was weakening against the Swiss franc, the currency in which he’d promised to pay Medici.
And then Hoving added another condition: to do a deal he needed paperwork showing the legitimate origins of the vase. Hecht assured him he’d have all the documents he’d need. With that, the men went their separate ways.
Hoving correctly anticipated he would have no problems coming up with the cash to buy the krater; the Met would eventually collect almost $2.3 million from selling the coins through Sotheby’s. From the outset of his negotiations with Hecht, the museum’s director knew that he would have plenty of room to play hard to get. He was right. Hecht made the next move, writing Hoving a letter:
If you appreciated the garden piece as much as you seemed to, there is no reason why we should not come to terms somewhere in between your price and my 1.3.
Hoving, still playing it cool and realizing that Hecht was coming down to his million-dollar offer, didn’t reply. Through most of July 1972, he let Hecht sweat it out while also putting von Bothmer through the charade of selecting statues from the collection to trade to Hecht. The two negotiators spoke indirectly through von Bothmer. When Hoving was on his summer vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, von Bothmer called him with the news that Hecht was making a final offer of $1.1 million and would walk away if the Met didn’t pay it.
Hoving called Hecht in Rome. He spoke in code, knowing that Hecht feared the Italian art police were bugging his phone. “For appearances’ sake don’t want to walk all the kilometers you mention. Can only go one kilometer,” Hoving said.
On the other end of the line, Hecht breathed heavily, without uttering a word. And then he broke the silence.
“Agreed,” Hecht said.
“I’ll talk to your wife on details,” Hoving said, and then hung up. Sitting in his office, shuffling through the photos of the krater, Hoving later recalled that he “felt a near-sexual pleasure.” Hecht reveled in his own version of rapture at getting the sale done. It was already nighttime in Rome, and he celebrated with a plate of spaghetti with clams and some grilled scampi. He washed it down with a now-rare white Chianti, a more common Tuscan wine at the time, before vineyards feeding the American market largely switched their production to reds.
Von Bothmer, who had feared this krater would be the one that got away, was also thrilled. Still, the deal wasn’t exactly finished. They still needed the approval of the acquisitions committee.
Hecht flew the next day from Rome to Zurich to see the vase, which Bürki was rushing to restore. Looking to speed along the approval of the acquisitions committee, Hecht prepared to ship the krater to New York the following Thursday. He bought two first-class tickets—one for him, and one for the pot—on TWA flight 831 from Zurich to JFK, at a cost of about $450 each. Bürki almost didn’t complete his work in time for the flight, filling in the slivers of red plastic with black paint and putting on other finishing touches into late Wednesday evening.
The men packed the krater in a wooden case and took it the next day to the Zurich’s Kloten Airport, where TWA personnel gave the pot the first-class treatment Hecht had paid for, handling all the security issues in the crowded terminal. Just half an hour before the departure time, Hecht boarded the jet with the krater and strapped the box into the oversized chair next to him using an ordinary seat belt.
Sarpedon, resuming his voyage after a twenty-four-hundred-year break, got the window seat.
Upon their arrival in New York on August 31, 1972, the museum’s shipping agent, accompanied by an armed guard who wore a revolver in a holster, met Hecht and the krater. The shipping agent had prepared the paperwork for U.S. Customs, but an officer still had to take a look. When they opened the box, the inspector told Hecht and the man from the Met that they sure had a real beauty. Satisfied with the paperwork, on which Hecht declared the krater’s value at $1 million, Customs waved them through. Even Hecht was amazed at how quickly the Met’s import system was working. By his timing, it took just forty-five minutes to get the krater from the jet to the car outside. The museum’s shipping agent loaded the box into his station wagon and drove the dealer and his precious cargo into Manhattan and the Fifth Avenue temple to the arts.
As they arrived at the loading bay at the south end of the museum, Hecht’s wife and two of his daughters, wearing jeans and T-shirts, ran over to greet him. They opened the box in a museum storeroom and took out the vase, tossing away the packing materials. “I’m going to cry,” Hecht’s wife said. “It’s like a Rembrandt.” Hecht handed Hoving a bill that affirmed the vase had come from Dikran Sarrafian. “I bet he doesn’t exist,” Hoving said, laughing.
Hecht saw no sense hanging out in New York waiting for the acquisitions committee to do its work, especially when he could get back to playing tennis. The next morning he bought tickets on Iberia to fly to Malaga, Spain, just an hour and a half from Lew Hoad’s tennis camp in Fuengirola.
During a special meeting of the Met’s acquisitions committee on September 12, 1972, Hoving assured the board members that the dealer, Robert Hecht, was known to the museum, and that the owner, Dikran Sarrafian, was a “well-known art dealer” in Beirut. Hoving told the committee—eight of its eleven members were present—that Sarrafian had put in writing that the vase had been in his family since at least World War I. Hoving distributed copies of Sarrafian’s letter and described additional documentation that Hecht had promised was on the way.
No one on the committee asked a single question. The vote was unanimous. The Met was buying Euphronios’s Sarpedon krater for $1 million.
One member of the acquisitions committee, the New York Times publisher Arthur “Punch” Sulzberger, was especially impressed by the vase, Hoving later wrote in his memoir. Sulzberger had picked out the places where the krater had been repaired in antiquity by several lead clamps and wanted to be sure the vase wasn’t a fake. Hoving assured him that the museum would authenticate the piece through Oxford’s labs. As Sulzberger was leaving, Hoving took note of how the Times publisher ran his fingers over the krater’s shiny, black rim.
“I don’t usually get involved in editorial matters, but this is so unusual; it’s such an opportunity. Well, I can see this vase on the cover of the magazine,” Hoving later recalled Sulzberger saying.
Hoving, ever the showman, said he loved the idea.
About five days after Hecht delivered the pot and left New York, von Bothmer called him in Spain with the news of the board’s approval. Only a few technical details remained. The Met sent a million-dollar check to Hecht in Zurich, which he immediately cashed and converted into Swiss francs. He was right to want his money as soon as possible; in less than a year the Swiss currency rose by almost 40 percent versus the dollar. Even after paying Medici the rest of his share, Hecht may have walked away from the deal with a cool $1 million profit.
Although money and a vase had already been exchanged, the deal wasn’t exactly done yet. The Met needed to know that the vase was genuine by testing it at Oxford. In late September, museum personnel took small samples from the krater, drilling tiny parts that would never be noticed by the public. They sent the filings off to Oxford’s Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art. The lab’s S. J. Fleming conducted a thermoluminescence test that measured how much naturally occurring radiation the pot had absorbed since it had been fired in a kiln. He concluded the krater was at least 2,790 years old and had been made sometime between 820 B.C. and 467 B.C. Von Bothmer’s estimate of 515 B.C., based partly on the “Leagros is beautiful” inscription, had been spot-on.
Sulzberger did follow through on recommending that the Times magazine feature something about the krater, and the story was assigned to freelance writer James Mellow, who interviewed Hoving and von Bothmer. Anticipating controversy—but grossly underestimating how bad it would get—Hoving and von Bothmer decided to say nothing about Sarrafian, mostly because Hoving thought the scholarly community would “snicker.”
Before the article came out on November 12, 1972, exactly two months after the official purchase date, not a word had gotten out about the Met’s record-breaking acquisition. And when it did, Euphronios’s Sarpedon krater got a coming out that no work of art has ever had—or probably ever will. The entire front cover of the New York Times Magazine was a color photograph of the vase. Across the top was the magazine’s title in its familiar typeface, and the date. On the bottom of the page, in small letters, was printed, “A new (6th century B.C.) Greek vase for New York,” and “Contents: Page 30.” That was it. The cover was the krater. Sarpedon practically bled onto brunch tables across the Northeast that Sunday morning.
The story on the inside was just as dramatic, and it included one shot of von Bothmer seated next to the vase, which sat atop a radiator in a museum office. The curator and his boss had spoken at length with the journalist about Euphronios, but they didn’t budge on modern details, not even the price they had paid for the pot. Mellow may not have gotten Sarrafian’s or even Hecht’s name out of von Bothmer and Hoving, but he did suggest that the krater’s provenance might not be clean.
Mellow recounted how he asked the Met curator three different ways how such an important, signed vase could have escaped notice for all these years, with nary a mention of it in all the books lining von Bothmer’s office, including the catalogs by his mentor, Beazley. “The interviewer is left with the mild suspicion that the Metropolitan’s new masterpiece might have materialized out of thin air,” he wrote.
Sarpedon’s Sunday as the cover boy was just the start of his stardom. The following week, he went on national television where he was interviewed by Barbara Walters.
Hoving, von Bothmer, and a team of Met technicians accompanied the krater downtown to the Rockefeller Center studios of NBC’s Today Show, upstairs in what was then the RCA Building. Walters referred to the object before her as a “vaahz.” Her co-host, Frank McGee, called it a “vayze,” before asking, “Now, how did you get it, who did you buy it from and how much did it cost?”
“Three of the questions the museum in its crafty way never answers,” Hoving responded, “but I’ll try to give you some information on it. The poor people have to know about this.”
Hoving then said the krater had come from an agent for a collector who had had the pot in his family since before World War I. He declined to say more because “they have other things that we might want to buy in the future. People prefer to remain anonymous in this type of business.”
If it had no previously disclosed or published history before the Met had bought it, McGee asked, how did the museum even know it was an authentic Euphronios?
“By looking at it,” von Bothmer piped up. “Simply by looking at it. I’ve looked at many.”
McGee turned to von Bothmer’s boss: “And you’re confident with his look, obviously, Mr. Hoving?”
“Well, Dietrich von Bothmer has been involved in the business of Greek vase painting for forty-two years. He was trained by the great Sir John Beazley, who was the man who literally started this science of dating and naming painters of these vases.”
By the end of the interview—which included a commercial break and a retelling of the story of Sarpedon’s death—about the only question Walters and McGee got a straight answer to was the correct pronunciation of “vase.”
“What do you call this, by the way?” Walters asked. “What do you say? Do you say vayze or vaahz?”
Von Bothmer gave her a diplomatic response. “Well, in England I’ve said ‘vaahz,’ but here I say ‘vayze.’”
At least one mystery had been solved.
The Italian cultural officials who had blocked development on the Piscini family’s land at Sant’Angelo in Cerveteri weren’t the only ones who knew the site was of great archaeological interest. On November 28—just sixteen days after the Met announced its purchase of the krater—Giacomo Medici and Mario Bruno, an antiquities dealer from Turin, met up in Rome to make the land theirs.
Bruno, who had a residence in Cerveteri and an antiquities gallery in Lugano, Switzerland, went with Medici to the office of the Piscini family’s trusted notary on Via d’Aracoeli, at the foot of the Capitoline Hill. They met with the daughter of the elderly Pietro Piscini, Gabriella, who negotiated the sale on behalf of herself and her father.
Medici knew this was the spot from which the Met’s Euphronios krater and some other important objects had been dug. He wanted to get at the remaining buried artifacts, and he swears he was planning to do it by eventually applying for permits to dig officially. He would have offered any of the best pieces to the government in exchange for the premio reward.
Sitting at the notary’s office, the two sides agreed on a price of 21 million lire, about $35,000, of which Medici and Bruno each paid half. Later they said nobody ever told them about the government’s block on their new land.
The Met’s Euphronios publicity blitz was bound to backfire. For one, the New York Times Magazine story had raised more questions than it answered; eager reporters working for the paper’s daily sections, having been scooped by their own Sunday magazine, were more than glad to do some digging.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the Met’s announcement alerted the Italian authorities that this new Euphronios existed. Based on the provenance of past Euphronios discoveries, the Rome-based art police knew the pot had probably come from their Etruscan backyard.
Even worse, news of the million-dollar sale started to trickle back to Cerveteri, where the underpaid tomb robbers began to think they were the ones who had been ripped off. And then came the most incredible complication possible. A few weeks after the Met’s Euphronios krater had its world debut, the existence of its smaller twin was finally revealed. It turned out that the kylix wine cup that Euphronios had similarly decorated with the death of Sarpedon had also come out of the ground in Cerveteri.
After twenty-four hundred years, the lost chalice had finally seen the light of day, and a photo of it had circulated in the art market. But unlike the krater, the matching chalice’s actual whereabouts were still a mystery.