Jan 11, 2008

Repatriation of the Krater


Pictured here is the Euphronios krater, one of the finest known antiquities. Created in 515 BC, it is the only known complete example of a work painted by Euphronios. The krater was purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a then-record $1 million from Robert Hecht. Suspicion was aroused as soon as the work was purchased about the provenance of the piece, where it was discovered, had it been in an existing collection etc. The most likely explanation now indicates the krater was purchased from Giacomo Medici, an Italian who was convicted of selling illicit antiquities on 2004. A 2004 article on artnet by the Met director at the time, Thomas Hoving, details his account of the acquisition of the krater. The krater was almost certainly illegally excavated. As a result we know nothing of its archaeological context.

As a result these questions, Italy and the Met agreed to arrange the return of the krater in exchange for other long term loans. Sunday will be the final day to see the krater at the Met before it is returned to Italy's "Nostoi" exhibition championing the recent repatriation efforts.

In exchange, the Met will be receiving a terracotta cup depicting gods on Mt. Olympus signed by Euxitheos, a jug shaped like a woman's head, and another krater made in southern Italy. I'll leave to the art historians and others the question of whether this is a fair bargain, and how much the Met's antiquities collection has been diminished.

Does this exchange remedy the earlier illegal excavation? The answer is no, it seems to me. It does not punish the illegal excavators. We still do not know anything about the krater's context. More than anything, this seems to indicate that the Met and other institutions will think long and hard before making another similarly dubious acquisition in the future. That I think is the real relevance, and its one I think has not been discussed amid the retirement of Philippe de Montebello and the stories about these returns. The salient question remains, are there ways to ensure antiquities are licit? The answer it seems to me is still no. Sites are still vulnerable, and the antiquities trade does not promote the careful scientific study of sites. Amid all of this controversy after returns by the Met, the MFA Boston, the Getty, and the University of Virginia, a fundamental conundrum remains. Should the antiquities trade exist in some form? The discussion should, I think, focus now on the next Euprhonios Krater. Is it being protected? Are there new acquisition policies which are sufficient? Will more institutions abroad adopt the standards of the Getty or the Indianapolis Museum of Art? Are source nations effectively regulating their sites? Are they promoting compliance with these regulations?
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