March 2, 2006

Could the Euphronios Krater set a precedent for Pergamon?

Posted at 2:02 pm in Similar cases

The Turkish Daily News argues that the return of the Euphronios Krater by the Met could set a precedent for the return of artefacts in foreign museums taken from sites within Turkey. They also point out that the concept of long term loans of other artefacts in response to the restitution of another was one originally proposed by Greece as a solution to the Elgin Marbles didpute. Whereas the British Museum has buried its head in the sand though, the Met realised that the problem was not one that was going to disappear if they just ignored it & so they took steps to resolve the dispute instead.

Turkish Daily News

The Euphronios vase case – could it be an example for Pergamon?
Wednesday, March 1, 2006
Ariana Ferentinou

At the center is the dead Sarpedon, the son of Zeus who allied with the Trojans during the Trojan War. Standing behind him is the god Hermes, the carrier of good and bad messages. On one side stands Death and on the other Sleep, depicted as two winged strong men who are about to carry the dead hero to his native Lykia for burial. This is a scene from Homer’s Iliad. Somewhere on the surface of this large size vase, 45 centimeters in height, the artists have left their signatures: Euxitheos produced it, Euphronios painted it.

It is the famous Euphronios calyx-krater (a vase for mixing water and wine), one of only eight vases signed by one of the master vase painters of ancient Greece who lived and worked in Athens around 520-470 B.C. He was also known as a pioneer for being among the first Athenian vase painters to exploit the possibilities of drawing in the new red-figure technique (red terracotta figures against a black-glazed background), thus breaking the conservative black figure tradition. Euphronios, like the other pioneers, liked to draw human bodies with extreme detail. About 2,500 years ago he drew the human body in an amazing variety of poses and even gave the scenes a sense of perspective by using overlapping and foreshortening. And in a characteristic choice for such an important artist, he chose as the main theme for such a large and important vase an enemy of the Greeks, Sarpedon, to treat him with utmost gentleness.

But this most beautiful piece of ancient art has been at the center of some of the ugliest stories that have severely stained the reputation of the contemporary safeguards of world heritage, namely the world museums.

The Euphronios vase was illegally dug out from an Etruscan grave near Rome in 1971 and then smuggled out of Italy. It ended up under shady circumstances in the United States, to be bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) for $1 million from international arts dealer Giacommo Medici. The original thieves were paid a mere $8,800. As soon as the vase appeared on display at the Met, the Italian government started a legal battle against the museum, challenging the legality of the purchase. The efforts of the Italians were intensified in 1995 after Swiss authorities discovered ample documented evidence of the illegal sale of the vase, in a storehouse owned by Medici in Geneva. He was discovered to have kept a cache of smuggled ancient works of art plus documents and photographs, destined for sale to various world museums. Medici was arrested and convicted of smuggling and selling valuable works of art to prominent customers, among which was the Met.

This year, in other words, 33 years later, after long and costly legal negotiations, the two interested parties, the Italian Ministry of Culture and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, came to a final agreement. Two weeks ago a deal was struck that may create a legal precedent for more such arrangements in the future between world museums and culturally rich countries like Italy, Greece and Turkey.

The announced agreement provides that at the end of 2006 the Metropolitan Museum will return the illegally removed Euphronios vase to Italy together with four other classical vases plus the “Morgantina treasure,” a silver collection from Sicily dating from the 3rd century. According to the deal the museum would transfer legal title of the artifacts to Italy after it receives evidence from Italian authorities about the items’ origins.

But it is a two-way deal. In return the Italian government will “lend” antiquities of equal value to the museum, to be periodically replaced by other similar ones from Italian museums, in order to keep the classical galleries of the Met always full. As it turns out, it is a mutually beneficial arrangement under the circumstances. Actually, this proposal was initially suggested by the Greek government in the case of the Parthenon marbles. The Greek government was going to give valuable Greek antiquities “on loan” to the British Museum in return for the Parthenon marbles; however, the deal fell flat after the British insisted that the Partnenon marbles carried out of the then Ottoman Empire by Lord Elgin with an Ottoman ferman were “alright where they are, at the moment, i.e., in London.”

Of course, neither the British Museum nor the Met are novices in the role as receivers of stolen goods. Turks know that very well. In 1966, 363 ancient coins found in Turkey, known as the Karun Treasure, ended up at the Met, a case that was eventually settled in 1993 with the return of the treasure to its homeland.

Every year over 10,000 works of art are reported stolen around the world, adding to a total that hovers around the 100,000 mark. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that the market in stolen art is worth around $5 billion. The biggest profits, which reach up to a 98 percent markup, are made by the intermediaries — a lot of whom are respectable art dealers all over the world. The big museum lobby does not want to return ancient artifacts to their countries of origin. They claim that universal museums are for the good of the world. They protect and disseminate culture. At the same time, though, in their pursuit for enriching their collections they have frequently found themselves succumbing to illegal practices.

Maybe the deal with the Euphronios vase will give impetus to finding a way to repatriate some important pieces of cultural heritage and keep the world museums happy. The Euphronios vase case may show the way back home for the Parthenon marbles from London or the Pergamon Altar from Berlin.

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