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Object X

With the start of Medici’s appeal just weeks away, he was anxious to try once more to strike a deal that would wipe out his financial debts to the Italian state and get his family future back on firm ground. The October 4 court date was important because the Italian legal system determined that no plea bargaining is allowed after the judges open the first hearing of a case. If Medici was going to do a deal, it was now or never.

In mid-September 2006, he sent his lawyer, Fabrizio Lemme, to meet with Paolo Ferri and make this offer: if Ferri cut his prison sentence to six years from ten, and cut his fine from 10 million euros to zero, Medici would plead guilty to all his charges—smuggling, handling looted antiquities, conspiracy—and he would hand over title to all the seized objects at Villa Giulia for which Judge Muntoni had absolved him. He would also relinquish any claim to the items for which he had been convicted, including the most valuable, the Sarpedon chalice.

And there was more. Medici would sweeten the deal with one other item: Object X, a treasure more beautiful—and more expensive—than Euphronios’s Sarpedon krater.

If Ferri took the deal, Medici would surrender this ancient masterpiece of unrivaled beauty, craftsmanship, and monetary value that had never been seen by the public. If Ferri rejected the plea bargain, Object X would remain hidden.

The offer had advantages to all sides. A six-year sentence for Medici would really mean three years of parole, according to new sentencing rules and a provision for nonviolent offenders. He’d never serve a day in prison, and his financial debts would be wiped clean. For Ferri, a guilty plea would be a huge victory, particularly as he proceeded with the prosecutions of Robert Hecht, Marion True, and possibly other coconspirators. For Italy, it would mean owning the Sarpedon chalice and this new Object X.

Ferri sat on the proposal for about a week, before he summoned Lemme to hear his response. At 8:30 A.M., on September 20, 2006, Lemme walked into Ferri’s cramped office. Ferri laid out what he was willing to offer Medici in exchange for a guilty plea: on the criminal side, he agreed to reduce the ten-year jail sentence to six years. On the civil portion, he’d reduce the 10-million-euro fine by just 600,000 euros—giving him credit just for the antiquities he’d been found innocent of smuggling. The 600,000 euros, Ferri said, was a fair market valuation calculated by his expert. That expert was the Villa Giulia’s Daniela Rizzo, who might get to display the vases and statues in her museum if Medici took the offer.

As for Object X, Ferri wasn’t convinced it existed, and he left it out of his offer. He did say he wanted to see it, just to value it.

Lemme took notes and told Ferri he’d get back to him. Then he called Medici and spelled out the deal. Would he take it?

“No,” Medici said. If Ferri was so eager to do a deal, maybe he could do better. Not only was the proposed fine essentially the same, but the 600,000-euro valuation for his legal objects, many of which he had bought at public auction from known collections, was robbery. “The valuation is ridiculous,” Medici said. “They’re worth at least 10 million.”

Then there was Object X. Without a deal in writing, Medici wasn’t just going to turn over this masterpiece to the prosecutor, showing all his cards and risking that another of his treasures would be seized. Ferri had to take his word that Object X would more than cancel out his fine. “Let’s just say it’s worth $20 million,” Medici said.

Medici told his lawyer to reject the offer. He’d take his chances on the appeal. Privately, he also thought Ferri might come up with something better before the October 4 date. That meant Object X and the Sarpedon chalice could be back in play.

But what was this Object X? Medici danced around the question.

“How much is the Euphronios krater worth? $20 million? $30 million? The Japanese would pay more,” Medici told me over lunch on the same day Ferri made his offer, working up a lather about the great deal the prosecutor was missing. “Then this Mr. X is worth $20 million!” he said, leaning halfway across the table and glaring, holding the pose for a moment to drive home his point.

But what is it?

“It’s something they can only dream about,” Medici said. “A vase? A bronze? A Praxiteles or Lysippos?” he said, referring to the most esteemed sculptor of ancient Greece and Alexander the Great’s court sculptor, respectively. “Who knows?” He added: “Mr. X is a gift. You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

Could he give any other clues?

“It’s by a great author,” he said, meaning it was the creation of one of antiquity’s finest known artists. And it was originally from Greece.

The more he talked about it, the more convinced he became that he should press Ferri for an even better deal. “If I return Object X, I deserve a great prize,” he said, and that reward should be a three-year prison sentence—in effect no jail time and not even parole.

And then he suggested an additional trade he could make with his prosecutor. To save his skin and bank account, Medici was finally ready to rat out everyone else to the prosecution. “They can use a pact with Giacomo Medici against Marion True, Bob Hecht, and all the others.”

“If I tell him the story of the Euphronios krater, he should give me another prize—reduce three years to zero,” Medici said.

There it was. Medici had admitted his involvement in the krater affair, thirty-four years later.

Medici’s conviction kept working its magic for Maurizio Fiorilli, the government lawyer. Without even having to twist arms, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts flew thirteen antiquities to Rome and handed them over at a ceremony at the Culture Ministry on September 28, 2006. The museum and Italy modeled their agreement on the one pioneered by the Met’s Philippe de Montebello; in exchange for the objects, Italy would lend significant works to the MFA and planned future collaboration in archaeology and planning exhibits. All but two of the items were vases. One was a marble carving, and the other was a statue that stood six and a half feet tall.

The statue was covered with a white sheet at the return ceremony, which a new culture minister, former Rome mayor Francesco Rutelli, yanked off with a flourish. Beneath, in her flowing marble robes, was Sabina, wife of the Emperor Hadrian. It was the same statue Medici said he had photographed in Munich and Hecht had sold to the MFA. The Polaroids that Medici saved in his collection and that had turned up in the Geneva raid had led Italy to convince the Boston museum it should send the statue to Italy.

With such victories, the last thing the Italian negotiators wanted was to have an appeals court overturn the guilty verdict against Medici. Lucky for them, he didn’t show up on the morning of his hearing. The appeals court sits in the same justice complex where the True-Hecht trial had been dragging on for almost a year—except this building is newer, with a glass-domed rotunda. Whereas custodians in the main court buildings wander around scraping chewing gum off the dull floors, the janitors of the appeals court buff the beige-and-maroon-colored marble to a mirror shine.

Beyond the rotunda, I found a broad corridor where the characters who usually populated these events had gathered: Ferri the prosecutor; Fiorilli; British journalist Peter Watson’s researcher, Cecilia Todeschini; some Carabinieri officers; and Medici’s lawyers. But Giacomo Medici was not there.

Medici’s lawyers approached the bench. Their client had called in sick, they told the chief judge. They presented him with a medical certificate from Medici’s doctor. Technically, the appeal could go on without him, but his lawyers asked the court to set a new date so that Medici could attend, and the judges agreed. Medici had found a way to keep alive his chances at negotiating a deal for Object X and the Sarpedon chalice.

As a result, Fiorilli would have more time to negotiate with museums and collectors—particularly the Getty and Shelby White—without any immediate risk of his main bargaining point, Medici’s conviction, being overturned.

The day after Medici’s no-show, Fiorilli had a meeting with the Getty’s lawyer, Los Angeles heavy hitter Ronald Olson, to discuss a potential agreement for the return of dozens of antiquities to Italy. Fiorilli, negotiating on behalf of the Culture Ministry, had requested the return of fifty-two vases, statues, frescoes, and other ancient items, based mostly on the evidence contained in Medici’s case. By the end of the meeting, Italy had won a partial victory. The Getty agreed to return twenty-five items, but refused to give back twenty-one objects that Italy had demanded. The two sides agreed to disagree, pending further verdicts in the Italian court system. The Getty thought it had a deal. But Fiorilli, backed by the new culture minister, Rutelli, would dig in his heels and hold out for more.

Walking home during the early evening of October 31, 2006, I passed by sites familiar to Giacomo Medici and his life story: Via della Lupa, where he was born; Piazza Borghese, where he and his parents sold antiquities at the open-air market; and the Lungotevere boulevard running along the Tiber River, just across from the hulking justice building, where Medici had done his first deal with Robert Hecht, in 1967. The path also took me within a few blocks of the state attorney’s office, the base of operations for Maurizio Fiorilli, the chief negotiator with foreign museums. So I wasn’t too surprised when I saw him walking toward me, heading for a gelato shop.

We greeted each other, and I joined him for an ice cream. He recommended the dark chocolate flavored with orange. I told Fiorilli I’d been trying to track histories of the Sarpedon chalice and krater by Euphronios, and his face lit up. He’d just been dealing with an issue involving the Greek master.

I might be interested to know, he said, that there are fifteen fragments of a Euphronios vase in storage at the Villa Giulia museum. Were these the same fragments that mysteriously turned up in May 1973, only to be forgotten?

He said they were, and that the shards had only recently been dug out of storage. They’d become important again after Shelby White’s collection came under suspicion through Medici’s trial, followed by Philippe de Montebello floating the idea that White was ready to negotiate a deal with Italy. But what was the connection between these forgotten fragments and White?

“We’re trying to match them with the Levy-White krater,” Fiorilli said. The fragmentary vase by Euphronios, depicting Heracles, was on loan to the Met. This was the same pot Medici had failed to win at the 1990 Hunt auction in New York when he bought the Sarpedon chalice. Amazingly, it was back in play again.

The fragmentary krater in New York was missing its base. The fifteen fragments had mostly come from the base of a krater by Euphronios. It had to be a match.

Later, buried in documents from Medici’s legal files, I found another reference to the fifteen fragments. On March 16, 2001, Ferri had written to the U.S. Justice Department asking for help conducting his investigation of the fragmentary krater Levy and White had bought at the 1990 Hunt auction.

“It should be recalled that the noted Levy-White krater came to be known to scholars only in 1981 (even though it was the object of an investigation by the Italian authorities since 1973) when it was displayed for a brief time at the J. P. Getty Museum. From then it disappeared until 1990,” Ferri wrote. “However, it can be reported that the Superintendency for Middle Etruria, in storage at Rome’s Villa Giulia Museum, has 15 Attic red-figure fragments.

“The great quality of those pieces and some morphological details lead to a concrete hypothesis linking them to the production of the great master Euphronios. These pieces have been on record as having come to the Villa Giulia Museum following a criminal investigation dating from 1973, which stemmed from a recovery of the fragments that originated with the criminal side of this sector.”

Ferri added, “The most detailed study available today of the great master’s works leads archaeologists to link some of these pieces to the Levy-White krater, and especially to the foot of that vase, which is currently in an extremely fragmented state. For this reason it would be particularly useful to verify this hypothesis by examining this artifact, and to better clarify the way in which it was acquired.”

In December 2006, I decided to take up Dietrich von Bothmer’s offer to see him in his cramped office at the Met. I phoned his office and got voice mail. I phoned his Fifth Avenue apartment, where I reached someone who sounded like a family member. I explained who I was, and the response was grim. I was told that Dr. von Bothmer was in no condition to speak anymore, as his health had deteriorated quickly. Not only could he certainly not come into the museum for a meeting, but he could no longer sustain a phone conversation. I apologized for disturbing them and gave my wishes for his recovery.

Unless he were to leave behind some written record confirming his belief that there were two Sarpedon kylixes, there was probably no way to confirm that Euphronios had made a set of three—and not just two—Sarpedon vases.

Medici’s appeal had been rescheduled for February 19, 2007, but as the date approached, the proposals for a settlement—and for resolving the ownership of Object X and the Sarpedon chalice—had gone nowhere. As it turned out, the appeal would go nowhere, too.

New legislation passed by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government shortened the statute of limitations on many crimes, as long as the cases were still in their first trial phase. That meant Medici, having chosen an abbreviated trial and already been convicted, couldn’t take advantage of the law. Meanwhile his alleged coconspirators, Robert Hecht and Marion True, could probably get off on that technicality if they chose to stop pursuing an innocence verdict.

At the appeals court, Medici argued that the shortened statute of limitations should apply to him, too, as a matter of fairness. This was something for the Italian Constitutional Court to consider. The appeals court adjourned Medici’s case indefinitely until the higher authority ruled whether the trial should even continue.

Before Rome emptied out for the summer of 2007, the Getty and the Italian Culture Ministry finally reached a deal. The museum would transfer title to forty objects to Italy. All of these objects would return to Italy by the end of the year, except the so-called Venus of Morgantina, the goddess statue, probably of Aphrodite, for which the Getty had paid $18 million in 1988. That statue would remain in Malibu through 2010. Also both sides agreed for the time being to put aside the fate of a bronze statue of a youth, as yet a new court case, concerning just that object, worked its way through the Italian system.

Rutelli could announce his deal, get his returns, and save face on backing down on repatriating the bronze. He cast the agreement as a victory against illicit excavation and smuggling. “It will close the book on an era,” the culture minister said at the August 2, 2007, news conference. “Fifteen, twenty years ago a museum could buy works like this. Today they can’t. They have to demonstrate the correctness of the purchase.” The aim of pressing the Getty and other museums for these artifacts, he said, was to dry up the market for clandestinely dug and exported antiquities. “We want there to be less water in which the traffickers can swim,” Rutelli said.

Significantly for Marion True, Fiorilli announced that he would drop the civil portion of the charges against her because of all the returning antiquities included in her case. The criminal charges of conspiracy and receiving stolen goods would remain, but True no longer had the threat of huge fines that had driven Medici to seek a plea agreement. “Dr. True’s position will be greatly lightened,” Fiorilli said.

I asked Fiorilli if he would also ask the court to drop Medici’s civil charges for the items the Getty was returning, those for which Medici had been convicted and fined? He shook his head.

Fiorilli was the hero of the day. At about the midpoint in the ceremony, Rutelli even pinned the government lawyer with a gold medal for his service to the Republic.

After the summer break, I visited the tweedy Fiorilli at his office in the attorney general’s headquarters. I wanted an update on the fifteen Euphronios fragments in storage at the Villa Giulia museum that he said might fit into the fragmentary krater from the Hunt collection, now owned by Shelby White and on loan to the Met. During Fiorilli’s negotiations to win back the krater from White, Italy claimed the fragments definitely comprised the vase’s missing foot.

Fiorilli’s office had the terra-cotta roofs of Rome outside its tiny window, and a bust of Hercules—an equal opportunity hero to all sides of the antiquities showdown—by his side. He said the issue had become more complicated. There was also a fragmentary krater in Munich attributed to Euphronios as its painter—the one Hecht had sold to that museum in 1966—and it, too, was missing its base.

“The fifteen fragments,” Fiorilli said, “we don’t know if they pertain to the Levy-White krater or Munich’s.”

The ministry’s experts needed to do an up-close examination of both kraters to see which, if either, was a fit. “I asked Philippe de Montebello to do a comparison,” Fiorilli said. The Met’s director said no, because White’s fragmentary pot was on loan and was not the museum’s property.

This was even dividing the Italians. Anna Maria Moretti Sgubini, the head of Etruscan archaeology, had determined in her study in 2000 that the fifteen fragments matched White’s krater in New York. On the other hand, Daniela Rizzo, a director of the Villa Giulia museum and custodian of the fragments, believed the shards would fit into the bottom of the incomplete krater in Munich.

Either way, Fiorilli said, White was planning to hand over the fragmentary krater in two years as part of a tentative pact in the works. But in the meantime, he was getting in touch with the Munich museum to see if they’d find a match there. If Fiorilli pulled off this maneuver, he could win two Euphronios vases with just one set of fragments.

The hearings in the True-Hecht trial were starting later and later, giving all the usual hangers-on more time to talk. On October 24, 2007, Medici and I chatted in the hallway, and I tried pushing him on the true origins of the Sarpedon kylix.

“The kylix was on the market for one and a half years before the affair with the krater began,” he said. “They came from two different tombs.”

They really didn’t come from the same tomb that the farmhand, Armando Cenere, had pointed out to the police when he confessed in 1973?

“The tomb that Cenere talked about is the one the krater came from,” Medici said, and then he started getting emotional, trying to impress on me that the excavation of the chalice was unrelated to the krater and he had had nothing to do with the cup at the time. Medici even swore on his mother’s grave and added that his eyes should be plucked from his head if he wasn’t telling the truth.

He really wanted to make his point clear: “If one came from tomb X, the other came from tomb Y,” he said. By trying to distance himself from the chalice’s origins, he revealed more than he’d ever admitted about the krater. He was more concerned with disassociating the chalice, which he hoped to win back, from the krater, which was now Italy’s property. “A year, a year and a half before, the kylix with Sarpedon was already on the market,” he said. The chalice came from another tomb on another site, in another part of Cerveteri, Medici said. “The kylix doesn’t come from Greppe Sant’Angelo.”

Medici had blabbed it all out so fast that it took me awhile to synthesize the many and varied admissions. Without saying how he knew, Medici had confirmed what prosecutors a generation earlier were unable to convince a judge: Cenere had told the truth about digging up the Euphronios krater. And when Medici said the Sarpedon chalice and krater hadn’t been found together, he let slip that the chalice was indeed excavated from a tomb in Cerveteri, too.

What was he thinking? Everything he had disclosed about the krater’s illicit origins was meant to contrast it with its smaller twin chalice. The shattered Sarpedon cup was the most valuable object he owned, and he’d never get his hands on it if he was convicted of smuggling it. For a man recently so short on cash that he had started hawking his Rolex wristwatches, the Sarpedon chalice had become more important than ever. Even in fragments, it was his best chance at solvency.

At the end of November, Shelby White and Fiorilli’s team struck a deal for her fragmentary krater. She would send it back to Italy, but only after a two-year waiting period. She would keep the pot awhile longer, but it would no longer be hers—even though it had been openly purchased at the Hunt auction in 1990. “If you go to Sotheby’s or Christie’s and buy something at a public auction, you don’t think you are doing anything inappropriate,” said White, who isn’t accused of any wrongdoing and isn’t even under investigation in the Italian cases. “It is legal to buy antiquities. It is hard to apply current standards to something that happened thirty years ago.”

In two separate, private events, White, in New York, signed over the krater to Italy, while Proietti, sitting in Rome, signed Italy’s half of the accord. Soon after, White pulled the fragmentary Euphronios off view at the Met, where it had been on loan in the Greek and Roman galleries since 1999.

She took it home to her Sutton Place apartment and displayed it atop her grand piano.

A couple weeks later, in early December 2007, I met Bruce McNall at a country club in Los Angeles, not far from the Getty’s main site. A lot had happened to him since his days selling antiquities to the Hunt brothers, most of it not good. Back on December 15, 1994, he had pleaded guilty to bank fraud, conspiracy, and wire fraud related to cheating several banks of more than $236 million during the collapse of his coin business and other ventures. A federal judge had sentenced him to five years and ten months in prison. He had served a few days short of four years (some of which he spent in solitary confinement) before being released early, on March 7, 2001. Now he was free and making movies again, such as 2005’s Asylum, starring Natasha Richardson.

In prison, he had taken a course that forced him to own up to the harm he had done to others and to recognize his narcissism. McNall no longer had anything to hide, and he felt better that way, too. So over a lunch of a cheeseburger, fries, and two glasses of red wine, he went over the history of the Sarpedon kylix. He said Fritz Bürki had shipped the cup from Zurich after Bunker Hunt bought it—along with the fragmentary krater that White now had on her piano. Although he didn’t have much information about where Hecht had gotten the chalice, he said Hecht had told him many times about buying the Sarpedon krater from Medici. As for where Hecht had come up with White’s partly reconstructed Euphronios, “He told me he got the fragments from Giacomo,” McNall said.

Meanwhile, the countdown to the Sarpedon krater’s return began. In Rome, the Culture Ministry enlisted the presidential palace on the Quirinale Hill for a display of some seventy antiquities that Italy had recovered from museums and private collectors. They called the exhibit Nostoi, a Greek word for homecomings. When it opened on December 19, 2007, its star Greek vase had not come home yet.

In New York, the city began its good-byes. In the Euphronios krater’s final days on Fifth Avenue, well-wishers had their last glimpse. Some recited verses from the Iliad in front of the glass case. Just after New Year’s, Thomas Hoving, the Met chief who had brought the krater to America, came by to pay his last respects to the vase that was leaving the museum on his seventy-seventh birthday.

Then, on January 8, 2008, the Met announced that its longest-serving director, Philippe de Montebello, now aged seventy-one, would retire by the end of 2008. A troubled but colorful era in the art world was coming to an end all at once.

On Sunday, January 13, 2008, the Italians arrived in New York to take possession of the krater. The delegation included Maurizio Fiorilli, the Carabinieri art squad’s Marshal Salvatore Morando, and a government archaeologist. They brought with them three vases to leave on loan at the Met, including an Attic red-figure cup potted, according to its signature, by Euxitheos—the same Greek craftsman who made the blank krater on which Euphronios famously depicted the death of Sarpedon.

That Sunday was the last day when the public could see the krater. Fiorilli and the Italian delegation arrived at the Met on January 15 to make the exchange. There, the museum staff and a shipping company specializing in artworks packed the krater in a blue, wooden crate lined with custom-fit foam, and then packed that box into yet another crate, stenciled with white letters: FRAGILE HANDLE WITH CARE.

Once they had packed the precious cargo, a diplomat from the Italian consulate on Park Avenue transformed the crate into a special entity under international law. By affixing a seal, the consular official turned the box into a diplomatic pouch.

On Wednesday, January 16, 2008, the Sarpedon krater boarded Alitalia flight 611 at John F. Kennedy Airport. Nearly thirty-six years earlier it had flown into JFK on TWA, strapped into a first-class seat. On its way out, Sarpedon traveled in the cargo hold.

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