The Why Files The Why Files --

The Art of Looting. The Looting of Art


Vase invasion
A large clay pot is decorated with figures showing Greek mythology.After almost 34 years, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art is set to return the 2,500 year-old Euphronios krater to Italy. This Greek vase, something even the artless would recognize as one spanking fine hunk of crockery, has been high-profile since the Met got it in 1972. As the New York Times reported Feb. 5, 2006, "Thomas P. F. Hoving, then the museum's director, pronounced the krater, used for mixing wine and water at banquets, to be of such high quality that 'the histories of art will have to be rewritten'" (see "The Mysterious Trail ..." in the bibliography).

Making a round trip: The "Euphronios krater" has been in New York since 1972. Now, the Metropolitan Museum concedes it belongs to Italy. Kraters were used to mix wine and water in ceremonies. Artwork on vases helped record history and reinforce myths. The scene shows Hermes (center), messenger of the gods, directing Sleep and Death, who carry Sarpedon, a son of Zeus, for burial. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In fact, it's the history of art looting that may need revision. Less than a year after the Met snagged the swag, the New York Times had already begun to eat away at the museum's story of how the crock was acquired. For starters, the man named as the previous owner said he'd never seen that fine dish.

A detail of a clay pot on display at a museum showing Hermes and his winged hat.
A detail from the famous, purloined krater. Notice the winged hat on Hermes? Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Experts suspected then, and suspect even more strongly now, the $1-million vase had been looted from an archeological site near Rome shortly before the Met bought it. Why, they asked, would such a beauty have been closeted for decades, as the Met maintained?

The august museum and its elite director claimed their vase was virtuous because it had been removed from Italy before 1939, when a strict law foreclosed export of antiquities. But Italy has claimed its antiquities as national property since the country opened its doors as a unified state, said Malcolm Bell, vice-president for professional responsibilities at the Archaeological Institute of America. "Tradition for 200 years in Italy has been to lay claim to antiquities under the soil," and to consider them property of the Italian people.

Carved blocks of marble reflect scenes from Ancient Greece. Between the years 1801 and 1805, the 7th Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, transported marble statues, pediments and freizes (seen here) from the Parthenon in Greece to Britain. Today, the Elgin (or Parthenon) Marbles can be seen at the British Museum. The Parthenon Marbles

Meretricious Met
Perhaps aware a controversy was brewing, Met director Hoving (see "The Chase..." in the bibliography) wrote in 1975 that "Procedures already in practice at the Metropolitan and other institutions attempt to provide proper controls and at the same time permit and, indeed, encourage collecting." But the chapter that mentioned the krater was foggy to the point of obfuscation about its origin. "Only three years ago, the finest vase by Euphronios was brought to the museum ..."

Now it sounds as if the krater will complete the transatlantic round trip with a flight back to Italy. The stunning reversal by one of the world's great museums capped a gusher of news about the collection, expropriation and looting of antiquities. Some highlights:

Woman carved of stone in ancient Greece shows her age - her arms are missing and she is very weathered. In Rome, Marion True, until last fall a curator at the enormously endowed J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, is on trial for illegal sale of antiquities. Her codefendant is Robert Hecht, the art dealer who sold the krater to the Met in 1972. Italy wants 30 items back from Getty, and Greece, four.

The British Museum continues to claim the Elgin Marbles, which Britain removed from the Parthenon in Athens in the early 1800s. The government of Greece desperately wants the sculptures back.

And the government of Peru has petitioned the Yale Peabody Museum for return of Inca artifacts removed by a swashbuckling Yale archeologist in the early 1900s.

Look, ma, no hands! This is a caryatid, an ancient stone carving that once acted as a pillar or column. Now she just rests in a museum. The Parthenon Marbles

You're in a famous museum, admiring a Greek vase and an Inca amulet. Did the museum "benefit" from some night-time shovel work at an archeological site?

Is that artifact legit, or is it loot?


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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