Archaeologist and journalist Silver traces the route of a lost masterpiece.
More than 2,500 years ago, Athenian artist Euphronios created a krater (bowl) and kylix (chalice) depicting the death of Sarpedon, a son of Zeus killed by Patroclus during the Trojan War. Buried for two millennia within the tombs of the wealthy former inhabitants of Caere (now Cerveteri), the ceramics were unearthed in 1971 by local tombaroli (tomb robbers). Not knowing the real value of Euphronios’s work, the robbers sold the fragments to their dealer, Giacomo Medici. Medici sold the krater to the American department-store scion Robert Hecht, who in turn sold it to the Metropolitan Museum, under chief of Greek and Roman art Dietrich von Bothmer, for $1 million in 1972. Though the Met was not forthcoming about the artifact’s provenance, the krater made a sensational debut in the press. However, according to the statutes of an antiquities law enacted by Mussolini in 1939, all ancient artifacts found on Italian soil became property of the state, and the Italian police were already hot on the trail of the Cerveteri tombaroli. When the news of a companion chalice—its whereabouts mysterious for years—became public, the lawsuits against Medici began. He was eventually convicted of supplying hundreds of undocumented objects to auction houses and museums around the world, among them Euphronios’s krater, which returned to Italy in 2008. Though it becomes convoluted, Vernon’s sharply rendered account is engrossing.
A densely packed, dizzyingly detailed tale of art and espionage.