The story of the theft — and ultimate return — of a magnificent ancient vase painted by Euphronios, the greatest Greek vase artist of antiquity, is a gripping tale that has helped to cripple the illicit international art trade.
In 2008, after long and difficult international negotiations, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art handed the "hot pot" back to Italy, the land where it was dug up.
A new book, The Lost Chalice, traces the story of the looted vase's travels from a tomb in Italy to Switzerland to New York and back to Italy through the labyrinthine world of smugglers and shady dealers in an illicit trade that fed a network of American collectors and institutions.
In its new home, Rome's Villa Giulia museum, the Euphronios vase has been given a place of honor in a glass case with special cool lighting.
Maurizio Pellegrini, an art expert, says the scene painted on the vessel was described by Homer.
"It's the battlefield of the Trojan War, the death of the warrior Sarpedon, son of the god Zeus and a mortal woman. With blood oozing from its wounds, the body is carried off by the angels of death and sleep," he says.
Pellegrini has helped prosecutors track down numerous stolen works of antiquity. "I told my bosses, 'I will not stop until we get the Euphronios back,' " he says.
Tomb Raiders By Night
Francesco Bartocci, a 70-year-old farmer, remembers the cold night in 1971 when he and his fellow tomb robbers discovered a vase that had been buried for 2,500 years. "I will never forget it," Bartocci says. "A warrior thrusting a sword into another warrior, and you could see the drops of blood spurting out, you could see every single vein on his arm. It's printed on my brain, too beautiful, too perfect, a great work."
Bartocci is the last living member of the gang of tomb raiders who nabbed the Euphronios. They lived in Cerveteri, a once-great Etruscan city an hour's drive north of Rome. It took almost an entire winter for them to excavate the tomb, which was on the edge of town.
The expert who helped nail down the exact spot where the pot was found is Vernon Silver, an American journalist with a degree in archaeology from Oxford University and author of The Lost Chalice. He says many of the Cerveteri townsfolk used to be tomb robbers by night.
"They started coming out and poking the ground with a spillo, a long pole, that could probe into the ground until they found something," he says.
Silver says the ancient Etruscans bought and collected imported Greek vases. Euphronios was among the artists in Athens who made many of those objects specifically for export.
Silver says that when the tomb robbers carted off the Euphronios masterpiece, they destroyed many clues that would help archaeologists understand the history and culture of the people buried in the Cerveteri tomb. "It's like a page being ripped out of a book of Etruscan history and Greek history and world history, when you have the opportunity to see what was buried with what, and who those people were, and who they were friends with, and who they traded with, and you don't have that anymore," Silver says. "It's a finite resource; there aren't an infinite number of these tombs sitting around."
Vase Triggers Crackdown
When news came that the Metropolitan Museum had spent a record $1 million for a pot of mysterious provenance, rumors started circulating that it had been looted from Cerveteri. Italian authorities began cracking down on tomb robbers and illicit archaeological digs. Through a combination of luck and tedious investigations, Italy succeeded in bringing to trial key art dealers and even the former director of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
Over the past few years, American museums have started returning many works of art proved to have been looted.
Silver says the Euphronios pot's return to Italy has had a major impact on the illicit antiquities market. "Certainly, the act of museums having to hand stuff back to Italy as a crime prevention exercise has probably worked. There are no museums that are going to buy this stuff now," he says.
Italian authorities confirm that there has been a sharp decline in the underground art trade. But they stress that the theft has been massive.
Over the past few decades, the art theft police squad has recovered some 800,000 artworks from antiquity, but authorities estimate that's only about 40 percent of the total looted by the raiders of lost art.