Common section




IN THE COURSE OF THEIR VISIT to the United States, which had been so successful in some ways, despite the cumbersome nature of the interrogations, Ferri, Rizzo, and Pellegrini had cause to wonder if there wasn’t at least one aspect of their investigation that was still beyond their full understanding. One way they glimpsed its elusive quality was in the activities of Dietrich von Bothmer. Over the years, between 1981 and 1993—in other words, over more than a decade—von Bothmer had donated no fewer 119 fragmentsof vases to the Getty. Why? Museums do not normally acquire fragments, at least not in any quantity. For example, Daniela Rizzo told us that the Villa Giulia Museum in Rome, where she works, never acquires fragments. It once swapped some fragments with the Metropolitan Museum in New York, because the Villa Giulia had some pieces that fitted a vase in the Met and the Met had fragments that fitted a vase in the Villa Giulia. But that was the only occasion. Professor Michael Vickers, at the Ashmoleon Museum in Oxford, told us that he had recently acquired some twenty-odd fragments from Romania, but they had been legally excavated by reputable archaeologists and had been approved for sale and export by the relevant government authority. They were wanted in Oxford not to reassemble into a vase but for the study collection—as examples, for students, of certain types of ceramic manufacture and decoration techniques.

Thus, the Getty is already unusual in that (1) it acquires many fragments, and (2) it does so in order to reassemble these fragments into vases. Several prominent archaeologists we talked to have confirmed that this behavior by the Getty is unusual and that they have been aware of it for several years.

Just how unusual the Getty’s behavior is may be seen from the following figures. In the ten-year period that the Italian investigators looked at, that is, 1984–1993, the museum acquired at least 1,061 fragments, of which von Bothmer accounted for 119. This is already seriously at variance with, for example, salesroom experience. We looked at twenty-three antiquities auctions held at Bonhams, Christie’s, and Sotheby’s between December 1996 and October 2005, almost ten years. During that time, 1,619 Greek and Italian terra-cotta vases were put up for sale. In those same sales, only twenty-four vase fragments came on the block (plus one fresco fragment and one fragment of a Roman wall relief). In fact, the figure of twenty-four fragments actually exaggerates the picture. In fifteen of the twenty-three sales of antiquities, no vase fragments at all were sold. Just three sales accounted for eighteen of the fragments (five, five, and eight). In most years, no vase fragments are traded.

Why and how should the Getty acquire, over ten years, 1,061 fragments, fifty times the number on the open market?

Fragments, or shards, can be important to scholars who specialize in ancient vases. However, ever since the eighteenth century, when Sir William Hamilton initiated the craze for vase collecting, it is whole vases that have been preferred, not fragments. Flinders Petrie (1853–1942), a British archaeologist, excavated at Naukratis and Daphnae, in the Nile Delta in the late 1880s, and used his discovery of pottery fragments to prove that these sites were ancient Greek trading posts, and he developed a sequential dating method by comparing pottery fragments at different levels. J. D. Beazley paid some attention to fragments when he was developing his method of attribution—but all that was in the early part of the twentieth century. Some dealers do trade in fragments even now, but more recently, for example, in Martin Robertson’s The Art of Vase-Painting in Classical Athens, published in 1992, he included illustrations of 219 complete vases—and only twenty-one fragments. In Sir John Boardman’s The History of Greek Vases, published in 2001, he included photographs of 234 different vases—but only nine fragments. Obviously, some painters, and some decorative techniques, are known only from fragments, but as the above figures show, the numbers are very small.

There is, however, a commercial factor in attributing fragments to the hand of known artists. According to museum scholars we have talked to, a fragment that might ordinarily be worth about $400 unattributed can be worth as much as $2,500 if attributed to a recognized painter. In the United States, therefore, attributed fragments may be attractive for the tax breaks attached to them. Both Dietrich von Bothmer (a student of Beazley) and Robert Guy are known among their colleagues for their skill and propensity to attribute fragments to recognized vase painters. Of course, it is much more satisfying—for both scholars and museums—to acquire vases, even in fragments, that are by recognized painters, so this is a situation where commercial and academic values are in line. And all this supports the idea, which Marion True admitted in her deposition, that the Getty acquired fragments in order to reassemble them into complete—or as complete as possible—vases.

But is there more to it than that? Is the fact that the Getty is so out of line with other museums a matter for concern, given all the other shortcomings in that museum’s behavior described in this book?

There were four other pieces of evidence that caught the attention of Rizzo and Pellegrini. The first was the fact that many of the fragments, as True said, had sharp breaks, so that adjoining fragments fitted together very snugly: “I would say in most cases they were sharp joins that were close. They allowed for a tight join.” She said there was at times “weathering” on the surface, “[b]ut they were not worn.” She accepted that this must mean that at least some of the breaks were recent.

A second piece of evidence that caught the Italians’ eye was a document released by the Getty in relation to the krater by Euphronios that the Levy-Whites had bought at the Hunt sale in 1990, and then sent to the Getty conservation department to see whether two other fragments, sold to them by Robin Symes, fitted. It will be recalled from Chapter 9 that the fragments did not fit but that during the course of her examination of the krater and the fragments, Maya Elston, of the Getty’s conservation department had said, of the two fragments, “some fresh surface damage can be observed on the larger shard (perhaps these are traces from an excavation tool)” (italics added). Here then was another suggestion that fragments had been excavated only recently.z

A third instance was an exchange during Marion True’s deposition at the Getty, when she said that the museum owned a cup by the Brygos Painter and Hecht had once called and offered a fragment, which joined the cup, and that he had asked an “outrageous” price, as she put it.

The final instance occurred during the negotiations over the acquisition of the twenty Attic plates that, in the end, the Getty did not buy. Medici, angered by the Getty’s refusal, as a consequence withdrew the thirty-five fragments of the Berlin Painter krater that he was offering at the same time, for $125,000. Why? Why would Medici cut off his nose to spite his face? Why refuse $125,000 worth of business just because a bigger deal had fallen through? Why risk spoiling his relationship with the museum over some bits and pieces? Beyond that, why was this vase in fragments in the first place? Why had Bürki, or someone like him, not reassembled the vase? This is interesting behavior in itself, but what in particular attracted Ferri’s attention was the wording of Marion True’s letter to Medici, in which she announced that the museum would not be acquiring the plates. The exact wording of the end of this letter was:

I am terribly sorry about the plates myself, and I do hope that you will understand that the decision was certainly not mine. This is the first time that John [Walsh, director of the Getty] has actually refused something that I have proposed. I should have mentioned the Berlin Painter fragments in my [earlier] letter; naturally, we will return them with the plates as they were part of the Agreement....

What, Ferri asked himself, was the “Agreement,” and why did it merit a capital letter? There had been only so much ground they could cover in Los Angeles, and this matter was sufficiently opaque to be put on the back burner. So they never had the opportunity to ask Marion True what the exact wording meant. Searching through the Medici documents, and those supplied by the Getty, it is fair to say that no clear, coherent picture emerged. However, that is not the same as saying that the scenario was entirely blank. On the contrary, the picture that Pellegrini and Ferri teased out from the documentation was tantalizingly suggestive, and it was picked up on by the judge when Medici came to trial.

Several of the vases—eight, at least—acquired by the Getty arrived at the museum in fragments, bit by bit and piece by piece over a number of years. However, from the documentation supplied by the Getty (which had volunteered some paperworkaa), the histories of only two vases were given more or less in their entirety. These were the Attic red-figure phiale by Douris, and the Attic red-figure calyx krater by the Berlin Painter. Both of these are very important vases indeed. The former was acquired in a series of sixty-three fragments between 1981 and 1990, and the latter in a series of fifty-eight fragments between 1984 and 1989. These acquisitions, combined with the fact that the Getty’s behavior was so at variance with the rest of the trade in fragments, allow us to test several scenarios that had occurred to Pellegrini and Ferri.

From a detailed examination of the Getty’s acquisition of the two vases, it became clear, first, that the average purchase price of a vase fragment was somewhere between $2,500 and $3,600. Obviously, this depended on size and importance, on whether the fragment related to the central theme of a vase or was incidental, for example, part of the rim. On this reckoning, however, the value of von Bothmer’s donations to the Getty amount, over the years, to somewhere between 119 x $2,500 = $297,000 and 119 x $3,500 = $416,500. One might ask where von Bothmer found the means to fund these donations. Is this, perhaps, the way he liked to be remembered? According to what we have been told by other archaeologists, by attributing these fragments to known painters (if that is what he was doing), Dietrich von Bothmer would have increased the value of these fragments from 119 x $400 = $47,600 to 119 x $2,500 = $297,000, an increase of $249,900. Was he able to take a tax break on these gifts?

Now we turn to the overall price of the two vases acquired in fragments. This was, in the case of the Douris phiale, $141,300 and, in the case of the Berlin Painter calyx krater, $101,900. These prices would appear to be neither very expensive nor very inexpensive, when compared with other vases acquired by the Getty during that time, prices that ranged from $42,000 to $750,000. But $100,000-plus for a vase is still a lot of money.

On the other hand, in both cases, some of the fragments were donated to the museum. Therefore, we can say that each vase was acquired by the Getty for less than what it was actually worth. (We are excluding here the cost of reassembly.)

There are two more things to consider. First, in each case the fragments were acquired from a variety of sources, though with both vases the great majority came from one dealer. For example, in the case of the Douris phiale, the bulk of the fragments came from the Nefer Gallery—from either Frida Tchacos or her husband, Werner Nussberger, or both. A few came from Bürki, and one from Symes. In the case of the Berlin Painter krater, the bulk came from Symes, quite a few came from Dietrich von Bothmer, a few came from the Nefer Gallery, and one from Fred Schultz, a dealer in New York.

What, we may ask, does this pattern mean? Does it mean anything? In both cases, more than half the fragments came from one source, though not all at the same time (the Douris phiale arrived at the Getty on thirteen separate occasions, and the Berlin Painter krater on nine separate occasions). So there was always one primary source. The existence of several subsidiary sources—if we can call them that—perhaps allowed the fiction, for the benefit of naive trustees of a museum, that these fragments were excavated separately, turned up at different moments in time, and came on to the market by different routes.

But there was one other pattern evident from the acquisition of these two vases. They arrived in spurts. In each case, several years might pass without any fragments appearing, then several would come along almost at once. In the case of the Berlin Painter krater, for instance, there was a spurt in December 1984, when fragments were acquired on the third, seventeenth, and twentieth of the month, each time from Dietrich von Bothmer. Nothing arrived in 1985 or 1986, but there was a second spurt in February 1987. Sixteen fragments arrived from von Bothmer on the eleventh of the month, and another sixteen on the seventeenth, this time from Robin Symes. In the case of the Douris phiale, the first acquisitions were made in 1981 and 1982, nothing happened in 1983 and 1984, and then there was a spurt in early 1985 when twelve fragments arrived, all from Nefer. Nothing happened in 1986 or 1987, but then in April 1988, there was another spurt, with twelve fragments arriving on two separate occasions eight days apart, again from Nefer. Nothing happened for another two years, then there was a third spurt in November 1990, when three more fragments arrived, eleven days apart, this time from Robin Symes and from the Bürkis.

Together—the sharp edges of some of the fragments, the possibility of excavation tool marks on some of them, the “outrageous” price asked by Hecht, the small number of mostly familiar names of those who supplied the fragments, Medici’s withdrawal of his fragments when the deal over the plates fell through, the admission by True of an “Agreement” involving fragments, the fact that so many fragments arrived from different sources, and the fact that they arrived in spurts—all this does suggest a pattern.

Is it really likely that up to ten years after some original fragments have been discovered, and discovered to be important enough to be worthy of a museum, that tomb robbers will go back to an illicit “dig”—assuming they can remember where it was in the first place—and sift the ground for further fragments, fragments that fetch in the order of $2,500–$3,500 apiece only if they can be attributed to a recognized painter? Is it really likely that, in the case of the Douris phiale, the tomb robbers found fragments while “digging” the same site on thirteen separate occasions? It sounds highly improbable. It is much more likely that the fragments left the ground together. There have been cases where fragments that fit known vases turn up several years later, but such instances are relatively rare.

If the Douris or Berlin Painter fragments did leave the ground together, and fairly recently, as the evidence seems to suggest, why did they reach the Getty by different routes and at different times? How, why, and where did they become separated? We suggest that the answer lies in the fact that they arrived at the Getty in spurts. The fragments are spread around the cordata as another aspect of triangulation. It is a way for dealers in the cordata to do each other—and museums like the Getty—favors, in particular to sugar other, more important deals. This is what Medici was doing when he offered the Getty thirty-five fragments of the Berlin Painter vase if it bought the Attic plates. When the museum refused to buy the plates, he withdrew the fragments—the favor, the lure, was taken away. This is what the “Agreement” was about and why True knew she had to return the fragments when the deal over the plates fell through.

What this suggested to Ferri, Rizzo, and Pellegrini, therefore, although they concede that this doesn’t amount to firm proof, is that a cozy arrangement is revealed, one that fulfills several functions. The acquisition of vases in fragments—“the sale of the orphans” as Pellegrini put it—enables a museum to acquire a valuable vase, not for nothing exactly, but more cheaply than if the vase were to be acquired whole or intact. The fact that, as True said, the fragments fit snugly together and were not worn may well mean that vases are broken deliberately, at the start of the process, to set up the subterfuge we are identifying. Second, by donating several fragments, dealers can ingratiate themselves with the museum, they can maintain good relations. Third, by publishing its acquisition of fragments, rather than a complete vase, the museum can test the water, to see if the authorities in the country where the fragments were looted from lodge complaints. (This is unlikely, because fragments hardly stir the imagination the way complete vases do. And, if a country—like Italy—has not complained in the ten years or more it can take to acquire a vase in this way, will their complaints be taken seriously at the end of that time, when the vase can be assembled? If the country hasn’t complained in the interim, isn’t it in a sense at least partly responsible for allowing the situation to deteriorate? And again, with all the delay involved, at some stage the statutes of limitations will kick in.) Finally, fragments can be used to sugar other deals; they are a form of hidden bonus, which the curators and those in the trade are aware of but which perhaps escapes the trustees and the rest of us. Fragments arrive in spurts, when other—bigger—deals are going through.

This scenario could only be proved if the Getty had made available all the documentation the Italians had requested, so that important acquisitions could be compared, alongside the arrival of fragments. But that didn’t happen. As a result, the full picture regarding the sale of the orphans remains murky.

Although this picture is murky, two pieces of information have been made available since the original publication of this book which render the situation less so. In an interview in New York on November, 17, 2006, Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum, confirmed that our interpretation of the market in fragments is substantially correct—that fragments are used in the way we suggest. And Dr. David Gill, classicist and archaeologist at Swansea University in Wales, whose work is discussed in the conclusion, drew our attention to another vase in the Getty, an Apulian storage jar or pelike attributed to the Darius Painter and showing Perseus with Andromeda (see pp. 89–90). An illustration on the Getty’s own website shows a pattern of cracks in this vase, in the form of a “starburst” so regular that one is prompted to wonder whether this breakage wasn’t deliberate (see the Dossier).

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!