Terracotta bell-krater (mixing bowl) (The MET)

The Met Python’s flying circus: A museum, a vase and the kingpin of stolen antiquities

This Greek vase was looted by tomb raiders, sold by a crook and finally seized from the Metropolitan Museum of Art



Noah Charney
August 6, 2017 6:00PM (UTC)

In the 1970s, a group of friends in town near Rome spent their weekends digging around the ancient Etruscan tombs that dot the Italian countryside around their homes. These tombaroli, or tomb raiders, supplemented their income by selling antiquities that they would dig up themselves to local dealers, who would then sell them for hundreds of thousands of dollars. Major museums around the world bought such looted antiquities, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the MFA in Boston, and the Getty. The question was, did the museums know that they were buying looted antiquities, or is it simply a case that they should have known but chose to leap at the chance to acquire an ancient masterpiece that seemed too good to be true?

One such object was seized last week from the Met. It is a vase attributed to the ancient Greek artist Python, which a colleague of mine, Cambridge-based Greek archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis, recognized as having been among the roughly 4,000 Polaroids seized when Giacomo Medici, one of the two kingpins of the illicit trade in antiquities looted from Italy (the other protagonist in the field was Gianfranco Becchina), was arrested. (Their stories have been told many times, for instance in "The Medici Conspiracy," "The Lost Chalice," "Chasing Aphrodite," "I Predatori dell’Arte Perduta" and in the Journal of Art Crime, which I co-edit with Tsirogiannis and Marc Balcells.) Tsirogiannis, who likewise teaches with me and others on the ARCA (Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art) summer-long postgraduate program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection, has made an academic specialization of linking images of looted antiquities (often photographed when police seize goods, or appearing in photographs taken by looters in order to find buyers) to objects that appear on the art market or in major collections.

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While Tsirogiannis published his suspicions about the Met Python vase in a 2014 issue of the Journal of Art Crime, and sent his findings to the Met, they did nothing about it. This is not uncommon; there are scores of suspect items in major collections, with famous museums sometimes knowingly acquiring looted art (as famously demonstrated in books like the ones mentioned above) and then plotting to cover up their knowledge, in order to play innocent if someone, like Tsirogiannis, calls them on it. The Getty is the most famous such example, but they are not the only ones.

Looting of archaeological sites is an international plague that loses both critical historical and archaeological context that could come from supervised excavations of archaeological sites, and often involves organized crime and, sometimes, terrorist groups that profit from the sale of looted antiquities, thereby fueling and funding all manner of more sinister activities. Of the hundreds of antiquities illegally excavated around the Etruscan necropolis of Cerveteri, just outside of Rome, the two most famous works are some of the only extant creations by the Greek master vase painter Euphronios: A krater, which was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1 million, and a kylix, or chalice for wine, which was bought by a Texas billionaire and eventually ended up at the Getty. Both were excavated by the same group of tomb raiders and sold to the same crooked antiques dealer, Giacomo Medici.

The story of that famous chalice is a case in point, and one that has been thoroughly researched. Rarely do we know a complete story of looter-to-famous-collection so clearly (the story is told in "The Lost Chalice"). It began in the early 1970s, where a group of tombaroli unearthed Euphronios’ chalice and a larger krater from their resting place at the Greppe Sant'Angelo tomb complex in Cerveteri. The larger krater ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the famous Euphronios krater), while the smaller chalice was transported through Zurich, where it was eventually purchased by “Bunky” Hunt, a Texas oil tycoon who at one time tried to corner the world’s silver market, in anticipation of what he believed to be a Jewish-backed conspiracy to convert the United States to communism. Yes, you read that correctly.

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Fast-forward 20 years to a Sotheby’s auction, where Hunt’s collection was sold in order to avoid bankruptcy and pay off a debt to the Internal Revenue Service. The chalice was purchased by a “European dealer” who was identified as Giacomo Medici, and who was also involved in the sale of the larger krater years before. Having been involved with now two of only nine known pieces by Euphronios, both of which depict the death of Zeus’ son Sarpedon, raised too many questions about Giacomo Medici. The Italian Carabinieri began to investigate, along with Manhattan prosecutors. As the investigation unfolded, numerous questions arose about the role of not only the auction house, but of the Metropolitan and Getty museums, too.

By the time the smoke cleared, the inquiry had mushroomed well beyond the Euphronios vases, to encompass a literal warehouse in Geneva full of looted, stolen, smuggled and trafficked antiquities from the Italian countryside. It also implicated a host of major figures from the Metropolitan, the Getty and other renowned art dealers and galleries. An astounding 52 stolen pieces were identified at the Getty and another 22 at the Metropolitan — but more have risen to the surface since then, including the Met Python vase. Thus, a questionable provenance or the lack of legitimacy for one small Greek wine cup produced one of the landmark cases in the history of art crime and put the world on notice that the theft and smuggling of arts would no longer be tolerated by law enforcement and would not be condoned either directly or even subtly by the major galleries, museums and auction houses.

There are tens of thousands of artworks reported stolen each year (20,000 to 30,000 per year in Italy alone), and far more that go unreported. Antiquities taken directly from the earth or the sea fall into the unreported category, as there is no modern record of them. Authorities might come across a looted tomb, but they cannot know what was in the tomb in the first place, and therefore would not know what to look for. The scale of the illicit trade in antiquities is staggering, made that much more sinister by the frequent involvement of organized crime groups. Looted antiquities can be sold on an open market, for full value, with only a false provenance that suggests that they were legally excavated and exported, but many museums and collectors do not even insist on checking the provenance.

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Tsirogiannis has spotted scores of suspicious works, as have colleagues who engage in similar detective work, including Stefano Alessandrini (the right-hand man of Italy’s equivalent to the attorney general, who also teaches on the ARCA Program) and David Gill (who has a regular column in the Journal of Art Crime). They regularly inform the institutions in question, assuming that the museums and auction houses and galleries are engaged in best practices, and will take appropriate measures to double-check objects in the collection and turn them in, if they prove indeed to be suspicious. But this recent case shows that best practices are sometimes not adhered to. Frustrated by a lack of response, Tsirogiannis sent his findings to Matthew Bogdanos, at the New York District Attorney’s Office. (Bogdanos is another colleague specializing in art crime, who wrote an article on art looting and funding terrorism in my recent edited volume, "Art Crime: Terrorists, Tomb Raiders, Forgers and Thieves" — there are also chapters in this book by Alessandrini, Gill and Tsirogiannis.) He launched the formal investigation that resulted in the seizure of the Python vase on July 24.

With reputations on the line, sometimes millions in purchased antiquities, and even the occasional coverup to cover up, it often requires police intervention to get collectors, sellers and collections to do the right thing with objects that appear suspicious. It’s a good thing that we have this small, but dedicated, handful of looted art detectives keeping their diligent eyes on art market prizes.

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Noah Charney

Noah Charney is a Salon arts columnist and professor specializing in art crime, and author of "The Art of Forgery" (Phaidon).

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