In 1973, Douglas Dillon, the Met’s chairman, launched an in-house investigation that turned into a mission to dig up materials supporting Hecht’s story that he had sold the pot on behalf of the Beirut collector Dikran Sarrafian. The museum was facing investigations in both Italy and America, and the Met’s attorney, Ashton Hawkins, and an outside lawyer jetted to Lebanon where they got a man to swear in writing that Sarrafian had shown him the pot’s fragments in the 1960s. They then flew to Zurich, where Fritz Bürki signed an affidavit saying he had received the krater’s pieces for restoration in August 1971, four months before the alleged illicit dig. Further bolstering their case, the Met’s investigators scored an affidavit from a Swiss photographer, Dieter Widmer, who said he had seen the fragments in early September of 1971 as part of his work with Bürki’s restoration.
The Met’s evidence, which the museum turned over to Hecht’s Italian lawyer, weakened the case that the Carabinieri and prosecutors had been building against the American dealer and the accused tomb robbers. In November 1973, an Italian court tossed out the arrest warrant that had been keeping Hecht out of Italy and away from his family. And later that month, when one of the Italian prosecutors enlisted archaeologists to see if some of the newly found, supposed Euphronios fragments could fit into gaps in the Met’s vase, the museum turned over black-and-white photos of the pot. Hoving and his staff knew well that the preres-toration photos, showing every crack, would show that barely a shard was missing. In January, the Italian court’s experts ruled that the fragments—including two pieces the size of a cigarette pack—did not belong to the Sarpedon krater in New York.
For the Met, it was time to declare victory. On March 6,1974, the museum issued the report of its in-house krater investigation. In short, it said, Hecht’s version of events was credible. The Metropolitan Museum of Art stood by its purchase.
That, of course, didn’t mean that Italian and American law enforcement were done investigating the origins of the krater—and the secret whereabouts of its smaller twin chalice.
In Italy, the finding that the shards didn’t fit failed to put an end to the fragment mystery. Cenere’s testimony and the confidential police informants’ reports of the krater’s origin in Cerveteri were too convincing for the police and prosecutors to just walk away. So the Italian magistrates had other archaeologists look at the stray pieces, and instead of just relying on photos, this time two Carabinieri officers visited the New York museum with two fragments to see if they would fit in.
The Italians’ krater case against Hecht and the tombaroli kept winding its way through the legal system, too, and though the men were not charged with any crime, they were still under investigation. Police and prosecutors in New York also had not made any mention of dropping their interest in the case, which had started with the search for the Sarpedon chalice that von Bothmer had shown slides of in Philadelphia.
Hoving seemed to have closed the door on the krater scandal as a public relations embarrassment, but as a legal issue it was just heating up. So it was to Hoving’s great fortune that he received a letter from a Chicago woman named Muriel Newman who said she had visited Lebanon in the 1960s—and had seen some Attic red-figure pottery in the home of a man named Sarrafian.
Bruce McNall, a stocky kid from California, got his start in the antiquities trade in the mid-1960s during a chance encounter with a military veteran who walked into the stamp and coin shop where McNall worked. The man was carrying a metal ammo box filled with coins from Egypt. McNall was just fourteen years old at the time, but this meeting turned him on to deal making and classical history.
The man wanted $3,000 for the lot, and McNall’s boss at Coins of the World Etc. in Arcadia, just outside Los Angeles, refused, saying he never spent that much on a single purchase. He also said the old coins would be hard to unload. McNall sensed opportunity. He successfully pleaded with his grandmother for a loan, bought the coins, and then turned around and sold the best of the bunch to a few of L.A.’s biggest coin dealers. By the time he had sold the whole boxful and paid back his grandmother, the teenager had made more than $10,000 profit. He was hooked.
McNall went on to graduate from the University of California at Los Angeles and won a prestigious Regents fellowship to pursue a doctorate in ancient history there—all while continuing to work as a coin dealer on the side. In the end, the faster-paced coin trade won out. He dropped out of UCLA to work full time as a deal maker, and only sometimes looked back at what could have been if he had chosen the less profitable, but ultimately safer, career as a professor or curator. His exploits would later include stints as a film producer (War Games, The Fabulous Baker Boys) and owner of the L.A. Kings hockey team, where he would lure Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers. He would also spend years in prison. But it all started with coins—and Greek vases.
By the early 1970s, the twentysomething McNall had built enough demand for coins among his Hollywood clientele that he needed to constantly comb the European auctions and dealerships for new stock. On one trip in the spring of 1974—to London, Zurich, Bern, and, for the first time, to the Arab world, where he dropped into Tunisia—McNall made a connection that would change the course of his career, and ultimately the path of the Sarpedon chalice.
The Los Angeles dealer planned to stop in the Swiss capital of Bern because the dealer Munzen und Medaillen (“Coins and Medals” in English) was holding an auction of coins and other antiquities. The sale was important enough to attract another American: Robert Hecht. The Basel-based dealership held the auction in the ballroom of the Hotel Schweizerhof Bern, a grand landmark built in 1859. But the real action, for someone like Hecht, was on the sidelines.
If Hecht’s business hoped to recover from the bad publicity from the krater affair, he needed to meet dealers like McNall who had deep-pocketed clients. When the auction finished, Hecht followed McNall toward the door. “Mr. McNall,” said the thin, slightly hunched fifty-four-year-old American, stopping the portly Californian who had just bid up a storm. “I’m Bob Hecht. If you like antiquities and coins, I have some items you might like. Why don’t you come up to my room?”
McNall knew Hecht by reputation and accepted the invitation. The danger of entering the underside of the antiquities trade was exciting, and McNall felt a rush of adrenaline as he walked down the hallway and knocked on Hecht’s door. The man himself let McNall into the room.
On the bed, Hecht had arranged the soil-encrusted fragments of a vase, still lying on the newspaper pages in which it had been wrapped. Milling about the room—which was literally smoke filled—were Greeks, Turks, and Italians, all of them swapping objects from their briefcases and pockets as they haggled over prices. This was the traveling bazaar of the artifact trade, and McNall recognized most of these people from the auction. One, a “tough guy,” he would later recall, was named Giacomo.
Giacomo always made his rounds with someone named Ugo, a bigger guy who sported bright shirts and lizard-skin boots. Ugo sold coins, but he never had anything good. Still, if you wanted the top-quality material from Giacomo, you had to buy Ugo’s junk, too. “It was understood,” McNall said.
McNall made the rounds of the room, buying what he could: a few dozen coins, mostly Greek silver, and, for $2,500, a kylix painted with red figures against a black background. This wasn’t any masterpiece, but it was pretty, and McNall planned to display it at his apartment. In time, he would get the chance to deal in a much more impressive red-figure kylix, and in the process learn the surname of that tough guy, Giacomo.
Hecht was happy to have included McNall in his movable feast, and shook his hand as he showed him to the door. “We should really get to know each other,” Hecht said.
With the heat on in Rome, Medici started spending more and more time in Switzerland during 1974, traveling to Geneva and Zurich two or three times a year and borrowing office space in Geneva from a Swiss dealer, Christian Boursaud. This gave Medici the opportunity to build his contacts in the international networks that supplied the wealthier collectors and museums far from his native Rome.
Nikolas Koutoulakis, a Greek dealer based in Paris and Geneva, helped Medici get a foothold while also using him to run around and check out merchandise. Koutoulakis had heard about an impressive haul that was just coming to market and reached Medici by telephone in Geneva. Medici was planning to travel to Germany for the World Cup, the soccer championship played every four years, and Koutoulakis wanted him to pay a visit to a Turkish dealer.
“Do me a favor and look at an object for me,” Koutoulakis said.
Medici, a rabid soccer fan, made the pilgrimage to Munich for the World Cup to see the star of his beloved Lazio, Giorgio Chinaglia, the lead player on the Italian national team. The Italians easily beat the Haitian squad 3–1 on June 15, but during a break in the World Cup action, Medici went to the Turk’s warehouse where he saw a towering statue of the Empress Sabina, the wife of the great Roman emperor Hadrian. It was an impressive, bigger-than-life tribute to the empress carved in white marble, standing six and a half feet tall and wearing a flowing gown. Medici came away with Polaroid photos of the statue—one of the top third, another of the middle, and another of the bottom. Sabina was just too massive to photograph in one frame.
Koutoulakis wanted the statue, but didn’t move fast enough, Medici later recalled. Instead, Robert Hecht got it, but Medici held on to the dimly lit pictures, adding them to his ever-growing collection of archaeological photographs.
In Cerveteri, the Carabinieri had been hearing more and more credible talk from the tombaroli underworld that something was afoot in Sant’Angelo, that perhaps a new tomb had been located that was filled with vases and other objects of value. The police, who had already let the Euphronios krater slip through their hands from that very same corner of Cerveteri, weren’t about to repeat that episode. Because the land—owned by a certain Giacomo Medici and Mario Bruno—was already protected by the ministry’s decree as an archaeological site, the Carabinieri had no trouble obtaining permission from the state’s archaeological service to start their own emergency dig at Greppe Sant’Angelo.
The police were already suspicious of this situation: Medici and Bruno owned the land, the men were antiquities dealers, and there was evidence of fresh digging on the site.
Medici recalls the events leading to the Carabinieri intervention differently. He was the one who tipped off the police to the new, unauthorized excavation after arriving at his hog farm one morning and finding that tombaroli had been there overnight. “We saw it and called the Carabinieri, but they accused us of clandestine digging,” Medici says. The police, finding freshly dug up statues on Medici’s land, suspected the art dealer. But Medici had an explanation: the pigs did it.
He said his free-range boar, working like truffle hunters, had spontaneously brought the artifacts to the surface. Not sold on this story, the police wrested control of the land from Medici. The Carabinieri, including Marshal Pontecorvo, the commander of the Cerveteri station, started the salvage dig on Friday, August 30,1974, along with Mario Moretti, the government’s head of archaeology for the region, and Giuseppe Proietti, Moretti’s young assistant who had just taken over responsibility for archaeology in Cerveteri. Academically speaking, Proietti, a 1973 winner of the prestigious national competition to become an archaeological inspector, was in charge of the dig, the first he had ever led in his career.
They needed to work fast, both to head off snooping tomb robbers and the coming autumn rains. So, like the finance police who had been there two years earlier, they brought in the bulldozers, which they used to clear away the mounds of dirt that sat in front of what appeared to be blocks of rock on top of a wall of natural stone. On the third day the heavy machinery had cleared away enough soil that the diggers could switch to picks and shovels. During the night, the Carabinieri, who had closed the entry to the site with a gate, stood guard. The local commander, Marshal Pontecorvo, even moved a bed from the barracks to the dig site so he could establish a twenty-four-hour presence.
Medici had the right to participate in the dig as an owner of the land; the owners would be entitled to 25 percent of the value of any artifacts found, and as a result were entitled to hire their own diggers to assist. It was an unlikely band, with some familiar faces, that excavated Greppe Sant’Angelo this time around. As much as the government officials would allow him, Medici bounded around the dig in bell-bottom trousers overseeing a team of his own that included Giovanni Temperi—the terrain’s caretaker who two years earlier had stumbled upon and then joined the dig that produced the Met’s Euphronios krater.
Alongside them, Carabinieri stood guard while Moretti and Proietti oversaw government employees who had been pulled off two other sites to sift through the soil. By archaeological standards, the dirt practically flew out of the hole. As they dug downward along the face of the tomb, the excavators first encountered heaps of dirt, about six feet deep, some of it mixed in with fragments of artifacts, some of it covering the blocks of rock that made the roofs and walls of one part of the complex. They were clearly looking at a tomb or tombs. On the far edges of the pit, they even located the doors to tiny chambers, a little more than a yard below the surface. These rooms were filled with rubble, which meant somebody else had gotten there before the archaeologists.
On the massive front of the main tomb face, the workers discovered bas-relief carvings of animals in a limestone called macco, which is only found in nearby Tarquinia. The violent scenes showed panthers and lions shredding deer and boar to pieces.
The archaeologists dug down another six feet and revealed the entryway to a staircase that long ago would have led up to the roof of the tombs, flanked on either side by false doors, decorated with circles and rectangles—and pocked with marks that looked like they could have come from picks or hammers. These decorative doors were an unusual find, matching a style found on the other end of the Mediterranean, in Macedonia, the homeland of Alexander the Great. Because of the doors, the archaeologists began to refer to the site as a “royal” tomb.
Yet another six feet below, they found the entryways to two separate tombs, one whose arched roof could be seen near the modern surface of the terrain, and another of more simple construction. Both were filled with rubble. “Either in ancient times or in more recent times,” Proietti said sadly in the days after the discovery, “the nighttime excavators have visited this complex.”
At this depth, nearly three stories below the surface, the excavators hit bottom, which was a plaza that extended in front of the wall of tomb doors. The archaeologists deduced that family members of the dead had used this terrace, trapezoidal in shape, as a ceremonial space to carry out funeral rites. From the square they could gaze at the outer wall of the tombs, which still bore traces of having been painted or frescoed.
The unusually fast dig, which lasted six days, yielded its most notable artifacts as the workers cleared the surface of the terrace. First they found two statues of lions made of soft volcanic rock and a Travertine marble statue of a sphinx. Combined with finds from the previous digs there, the menagerie of mythical figures buried at Greppe Sant’Angelo was growing. The excavators also dug up two men’s gravestones that were shaped like phalluses, with the names of the deceased written atop them. Then the workmen uncovered something that terrified them.
First they found a stone torso, its hands broken off, and lacking a head, and then the head itself: a demonic figure with wavy hair blown back, mouth agape, hooked nose, a pointy devil’s beard, and blazing eyes opened wide.
The local excavators recoiled in fear, and confusion rippled through the dig. The out-of-town archaeologists wondered what had gotten into the workmen, especially when it seemed they had come up with such a wonderful find. Then some of the Cerveteri natives explained. During the dig, the men had already been mindful that they might be disturbing the Shadow who haunts the area. Now, they feared, they had uncovered the Demon of Sant’Angelo.
The archaeologists explained to the men that they had merely uncovered the only known sculptural representation of the Etruscan god of the afterlife, Tuchulca, or the related deity, Charun, who had previously been seen only on wall paintings. Proietti (whose research would eventually settle on this being Charun) helped reassemble the frightening statue. After he and the Carabinieri announced the existence of the excavation to the public on September 4, 1974, Proietti, wearing a short-sleeved windowpane-patterned shirt, posed next to the demon for photographers.
But what about Euphronios?
Excavators who thought they might find signs that a Euphronios krater or kylix had been buried at the site were puzzled by the evidence found there. The massive tomb, with its rare arched roof, dated by its architectural elements to about 300 B.C., the twilight of Etruscan civilization. That meant the tomb was built more than two hundred years after Euphronios painted his vases, making it an unlikely final resting place for the pots. More likely, some of the other smaller, possibly older, nearby tombs in the burial complex had held such vases. It would later turn out that the archaeologists speculated correctly.
At the time, Moretti had a theory. Between posing with the lion statues and chatting with Giacomo Medici, who had come to soak up some of the excitement, the mustachioed Moretti explained his conclusions during a news conference at the site on Tuesday, September 10, 1974.
“Since the last century the farmers who cultivate this area, after finding tombs, would take the vases and hide them, waiting to sell them, in different locations that were almost always other tombs known only to them,” Moretti said. “It is almost assured that the Euphronios vase, which has notably ended up at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, could have been left, after being taken from its original tomb, in this warehouse tomb here.”
If nineteenth-century tomb robbers had used these chambers as storage space, “Nothing would stop one from thinking that the celebrated Euphronios vase came right from here, even if it was from two centuries earlier,” Moretti said.
A week after they had finished the emergency excavation, the archaeologists came up with a surprising finding. They sorted through fragments they had found and determined that they dated from the eighth century B.C. all the way through to the second century B.C. The vast range of dates “signifies that there was a lot of shifting around of the vases that had been there,” Moretti said. But who or what had done the shifting?
Cerveteri’s necropolises got mighty crowded in the final years of the civilization, making real estate for the dead hard to come by. There was a history of reuse, and the mixing of strata and artifacts could have happened in antiquity. In the explanation favored by Medici, the Etruscans emptied out older burial chambers to build new ones. In the process they discarded pottery that might have been of little value to them, piling it into smaller tombs nearby and scrap heaps on top of the new structures.
Regardless of which theory would explain where Euphronios’s Sarpedon krater was found—a nineteenth-century warehouse tomb, an intact ancient tomb, or the scattered remains of a tomb recycled in antiquity—the truth would be impossible for archaeologists to discern for sure. The tomb robbers, by their very treasure-hunting nature, had destroyed the historical record forever.
That did not mean the Euphronios investigation was anywhere near its end. In the background, the notoriously slow Italian legal system continued to turn, and the state prosecutor’s office in Civitavecchia pursued his case against the tomb robbers whom Armando Cenere had fingered, as well as Hecht, for the trafficking of the Sarpedon krater. To get an indictment, the prosecutor, Domenico Sica, needed to convince a judge that Cenere’s testimony was worth believing and that Sarrafian’s story about being the source of the krater wasn’t. He would need to show that the Met’s growing dossier on the legitimate origins of the krater was flawed.
If he wanted a slam dunk, he needed to show that at least one of the fragments that had surfaced in Italy—whether found at the Sant’Angelo site or at a tombarolo’s house, left in the Cerveteri church, or sent anonymously to the Carabinieri—matched a missing portion of the Euphronios krater in New York. For the moment, Italian archaeologists were unable to make such a match.
As the chances of making a case that the Euphronios krater had been looted diminished, the Met’s odds at proving the opposite never looked better.
Thomas Hoving finally convinced Muriel Newman, the woman who had written to him about meeting Dikran Sarrafian in Lebanon, to talk about the pottery he had shown her in the 1960s. Anything Hoving could learn that would back the story that Sarrafian had long owned the museum’s Euphronios would help.
Newman, who had been following the krater affair through news reports, would make a credible witness in the art world; she was a member of the twentieth-century acquisitions committee at the Art Institute of Chicago and was an active collector of abstract expressionist paintings. Hoving took her seriously enough that in autumn 1974 he traveled to Chicago and met with Newman at the Drake Hotel, accompanied by Met lawyers who took an affidavit from her. The “attractive widow in her 50s,” as Hoving described her, told the story of how she and her husband vacationed in Beirut in 1964. On the advice of a friend, Newman visited Sarrafian at his apartment to buy some archaeological trinkets. At that point, no vases were involved. Satisfied with her purchase, though, she visited with Sarrafian again later in the trip. As they sat on his terrace, Sarrafian told Newman he had something to show her.
The affidavit lays out the details of what happened next: “I followed Mr. Sarrafian into a small room where he opened a large box containing shards. He told me they were pieces of something called a krater—an ancient Greek vase—signed by a great artist named Euphronios, which his father, an art dealer, had acquired in the early ’20s. The shards were large—very—and thick and extremely dirty. I have no recollection of any particular designs on them. Mr. Sarrafian explained that the painter of the vase was one of the important names in history and I always remembered the name, Euphronios. He wanted to know if I might be interested in purchasing them. I told him I wasn’t.”
Hoving had scored the trump card that nailed his case for buying the krater. Sarrafian did have a Euphronios before 1971. Or so he thought.
In the meantime, the matching Sarpedon chalice was still out there, and the Met’s Dietrich von Bothmer knew more than he had been saying. The chief of the Met’s Greek and Roman department had mostly kept silent on the subject of Euphronios since the krater affair erupted. His impolitic comments to the press and his revelation in Philadelphia that he knew of the matching Sarpedon kylix had only hurt him. But privately, von Bothmer couldn’t let go of the subject. So von Bothmer made a speech about the topic in a language most American archaeologists probably couldn’t understand—his native German.
He gave the talk at the Berlin Archaeological Society on March 4, 1975, and published it the following year as an article called “Der Euphronioskrater in New York,” in an archaeology journal called Archäologischer Anzeiger. While the twenty-seven-page piece was, as the title indicated, about the Euphronios krater at the Met, von Bothmer used the lecture to make his first explicit, public reference to the krater’s smaller twin chalice.
And he made a revelation that—had it been said or published in English—may have touched off another storm.
“Sarpedon is represented only rarely in ancient art, but we know directly from Euphronios that he had already taken up the topic early in his career,” von Bothmer wrote, “because there is a bowl signed by him, with the same subject, which is about five years older than the Krater.
“This bowl, which I once saw in Europe, has the first depiction of Sarpedon’s mortuary rites by Sleep and Death.”
This was more than he had previously revealed in public, and it confirmed what he had told the FBI in private about seeing the kylix in Europe. The funny thing is, nobody seemed to notice. Not the Italian police or the Manhattan prosecutors. How many of them attended lectures in Germany or were regular readers of Archäologischer Anzeiger?
Hoving needed to make the lingering krater investigations in Italy and New York go away. He didn’t want this case to spoil the impending visit to his museum of the world’s most celebrated collection of ancient materials: the Treasures of Tutankhamun.
The Met director had been waging antiquities battles on two fronts. At the same time that he was fighting the accusations that the Euphronios krater was looted, Hoving had taken charge of organizing the visit of the Egyptian king’s tomb remains to the United States. In a process that began during the June 1974 meeting between President Richard Nixon and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Hoving had traveled to Cairo to select which of the objects would tour American museums. Hoving even won permission for an after-hours visit to the Egyptian Museum, the Tut treasures’ permanent home. Once inside, he had been allowed to open the cases and “fondle” any of the boy king’s belongings that he wanted. The first one he touched was Tutankhamun’s iconic gold mask, which he lifted from its stand and kissed, full on the lips. He even helped arrange for two U.S. Navy ships, USS Milwaukee and USS Sylvania, to transport the objects to the United States.
After stops in Washington, Chicago, New Orleans, Los Angeles, and Seattle, the Tut exhibit was due to open in New York for a four-month stay at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, starting December 15, 1978. As that date approached, Hoving’s luck turned again. After a decade running the museum on a fuel of ego, enthusiasm, and questionable acquisitions, it became clear to him and the board of trustees that his time was up. In a last rebuke, while Hoving was out of reach on a yacht race to Bermuda, the board’s executive committee voted to override his and the acquisition committee’s decision to buy a Duccio di Buoninsegna painting. The seven-hundred-year-old depiction of the Crucifixion, put up for sale by Birmingham University in England, would have been the Met’s first Duccio. Hoving angrily began to negotiate his departure. On November 5, 1976, the New York Times’s Grace Glueck broke the news that Hoving had agreed to retire. He would step down on June 30, 1977, at the age of forty-six. Philippe de Montebello would replace him.
As his time ran out, Hoving battled back against what seemed like the final threats from the krater affair. In 1977, Dikran Sarrafian and his wife were killed in a car crash in Beirut—before Italian investigators could question Sarrafian about the signed Euphronios fragments he had supposedly once owned. In New York, Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau started an investigation.
Hoving said he was told at the time that Sarrafian’s death had triggered the grand jury probe, but he suspected that the prosecutor was ultimately going after him and von Bothmer for buying a looted Euphronios. The assistant district attorneys were about to call the Met director and curator to testify to the grand jury when they learned of Muriel Newman’s affidavit and called her first, getting her to come to New York. Soon after hearing her testimony, the grand jury asked the prosecutors to drop the case, which they did.
Then the news came from Italy. On October 13, 1978, Judge M. Lion, sitting in Civitavecchia, issued his ruling on the evidence that the Carabinieri art squad and local prosecutors had been building against Robert Hecht and the seven accused tomb robbers. Lion outlined the points, both for and against prosecution.
On one hand, the Italian embassy in Lebanon had managed to speak with the daughter of the deceased Sarrafian, and she said she knew nothing of either the vase or a million-dollar payment. On the other hand, Judge Lion wrote, Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau had decided not to prosecute. Yes, Cenere, the admitted tombarolo lookout, had testified that he had been part of a clandestine dig. But he had just identified one fragment—“a man who was bleeding”—and that was probably after he had seen photos of the Met’s vase. And yes, Cenere had accurately led investigators to an illicit dig site at Sant’Angelo in Cerveteri, and yes, the police had found vase fragments there. But the investigators, using detailed photos of the krater from the Met, failed to match the fragments they had found to any gaps they could find in the massive Sarpedon vase. The judge also took note of testimony taken from Bürki the restorer in Zurich, who said he had started to recompose the krater months before the alleged Christmas 1971 dig in Cerveteri.
Taken all together, Judge Lion wrote of the evidence, “It is declared that the cases should not proceed against” the seven supposed tombaroli and Robert Hecht, “for reason of insufficient proof.”
That was it. The krater case was closed. Investigators on both sides of the Atlantic had failed to build a convincing case that the Met’s vase had been stolen—and they had failed to find the krater’s missing twin, the Sarpedon chalice by Euphronios.
For Giacomo Medici, it was time to get out of town. In 1978, he closed down his shop on Via del Babuino in Rome. It was safer for him to conduct his business outside Italy. Weighing his options for where to hang his shingle, he considered Switzerland—either Geneva, Zurich, or Basel—and possibly even London. Zurich and Basel were the more traditional choices for the art trade, already teeming with galleries and the Swiss banks whose vaults held treasures and the cash for big purchases. But Medici’s sometimes colleague, Christian Boursaud, suggested Geneva. The old town there didn’t have too many other antiquities businesses to compete with him. And in Geneva he’d still have the advantages of the liberal Swiss export laws.
The two men started making plans to go into business together. Medici’s operation was on its way across the Alps.
Seven years had passed since the clandestine Cerveteri excavation. Unless, by some fluke, new evidence could suddenly surface, there was no chance anyone would be brought to justice. There was no chance Italy could win the return of the krater. And there would be no chance the missing chalice could be found.
For the moment, the clouds lifted over Fifth Avenue: Hoving was out, the krater investigations were finished—and King Tut was coming to town.
In New York at the time, the Tutankhamun exhibit was about as exciting as the release of Star Wars and the Yankees beating the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Series. On Saturday Night Live, comedian Steve Martin dressed as a pharaoh and sang “King Tut.”
Whatever sins Hoving committed against archaeology and customs regulations in his years of acquisitions, he deserves credit for the Tut exhibit. It surely inspired a generation of archaeologists. Visitors to the exhibit learned about the alabaster canopic jars in which embalmers had stored the boy king’s organs, heard ancient details of the coffins within coffins, and soaked up modern tales of how in 1923 Howard Carter had discovered the undisturbed tomb and the heaps of treasure and everyday objects inside.
But what was it about Tutankhamun that inspired so much interest?
It wasn’t any one object, but the entire ensemble of related artifacts and the history they collectively recounted. Tutankhamun inspired because he had a story. A simple gold dagger in a display case was much more than a pretty weapon, because museumgoers knew whose it was, when it had been made, where it had been buried, and what had been buried with it. Visitors to the Met understood that scientists had been able to study King Tut’s corpse, see what kinds of things he owned, and figure out what sort of food and drink had been left for his journey to the afterlife.
Another story inspired the public and archaeologists alike: the story that all the photos and documentation from Carter’s dig told about the adventure of discovering the rarest of all treasures, an undisturbed tomb. King Tut was one of the least powerful pharaohs and had what was probably the smallest tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Yet he continues to inspire.
It’s a rare kid like Dietrich von Bothmer who can go to a museum and be propelled on a lifelong obsession just by seeing a beautiful image on a krater—absent the krater’s story and context. Sadly, behind every such vase was once an Etruscan King Tut, about whom nothing is known today.
It had been just six years since von Bothmer’s presentation in Philadelphia had revealed the chalice’s existence and had led to his exile. Those years had also seen von Bothmer try to buy the cup for the Met—an opportunity that slipped through his hands because his boss, Hoving, couldn’t brave the bad publicity from the prior purchase of its larger twin by Euphronios.
But von Bothmer just couldn’t let go of his obsession with Euphronios, Sarpedon, or the cup, which had languished all this time somewhere in the antiquities underworld. The Sarpedon chalice still had never been put on public display. The only audience to even catch a glimpse of it had been the archaeologists who attended von Bothmer’s December 1972 lecture in Philadelphia, and all they had seen was a black-and-white slide. In his 1975 lecture in Berlin, he had made just a brief mention of the cup. Vase scholars couldn’t be blamed if they were to conclude that the kylix had simply disappeared.
Then von Bothmer broke the silence, during the last week of April 1979, at a conference on Greek vases, held at New York’s Hudson Valley Community College. The name of the town in which they had gathered was not lost on the participants: Troy, New York. In fact, it seemed to inspire von Bothmer, who named his lecture “The Death of Sarpedon.”
He started his talk with the Met’s own “unrivalled masterpiece,” its krater by Euphronios, decorated with the fallen son of Zeus. Von Bothmer was defiant from the start. Maybe it was because enough time had passed since the original controversy. Perhaps with Hoving gone from the museum, he felt unencumbered. “If our krater still figures in the Guinness Book of Records as the most expensive Greek vase ever bought, it is not exactly our fault if, regrettably, no other, more perfect Greek vase has come to light that would command a higher price.
“Speaking on the krater at Troy, it occurs to me that this should be the perfect place to throw a strong light on the iconography of the vase and to feature Sarpedon,” von Bothmer said. Then he spelled out why, in essence, he was obsessed.
“In art Sarpedon is one of the rarer subjects. The name is inscribed on only five vases, two Corinthian, two Attic, and one South Italian—spanning a period of 250 years,” he said. And except for one, they all had prestigious homes. One of the Corinthian vases was at the Vatican, and the other at the royal library in Brussels. The newer, South Italian vase was in a museum in Taranto, Italy. One of the Attic vases was, of course, the Euphronios krater, in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
But the fifth vase bearing the rare inscription of Sarpedon’s name was a different story.
“Thanks to the New York krater, Euphronios can now be credited with having first devised the scheme that shows Sleep and Death facing each other with the body of Sarpedon between them. On an earlier inscribed and signed cup of his which is unpublished and has temporarily disappeared from view, Sleep and Death, dressed like warriors and wingless, carry the body in single file.”
In just one sentence, von Bothmer had dropped several tantalizing clues. In case there were any doubts, he confirmed that the chalice, indeed, hadn’t yet gone on view anywhere. And then there was the word temporarily. What did he know? Had he figured out a way to get his hands on it, now that Hoving was out of the picture? Would he—or someone else—soon publish the full details of the cup, including photos, in a scholarly journal? While the kylix had disappeared, it hadn’t vanished. But what had Hecht, its last known owner, done with the chalice?
Von Bothmer continued to indicate that he knew an awful lot about this unpublished work. “The cup with the wingless figures of Sleep and Death is an early work by Euphronios, if not his earliest. The Sarpedon krater shows him at the height of his mastery. The difference between the two vases, however, is more than mere technical competence. In the very treatment of the subject we see an inner progression from a hesitant composition to a perfect solution.”
The evidence of how an artist’s genius had developed was contained in just these two vases, von Bothmer said. No wonder the missing chalice had bewitched the curator so profoundly.
At the end of the talk, von Bothmer went as far as saying that Euphronios’s two depictions of Sarpedon put the artist on par with Homer. Both the Greek poet and the Greek painter had depicted Sarpedon’s death as a tragedy, even though he had battled against the Greeks.
“Looking at dead Sarpedon, we forget what side he fought on,” von Bothmer concluded. “If we think of him in historic terms at all, we think of Zeus his father who was unable to save him.”
“Little wonder, then, that a great artist like Euphronios was moved, at least in his picture of Sarpedon, to a level that transcends parties and ignores such smaller distinctions as victory or defeat. Through the choice of his subject and its treatment which I take to be totally original rather than copied or adapted, Euphronios the painter has thus become the equal of the poet and achieved his own claim to immortality.”
If von Bothmer was right about the cup being “temporarily” off view, immortality for Euphronios might mean that his Sarpedon chalice would live to see another day.
The seeds of the cup’s future had already been planted—on Rodeo Drive, of all places. Soon after Bruce McNall met Robert Hecht and Giacomo Medici at the coin auction in Zurich in 1974, he opened a shop on the Los Angeles luxury strip, nestled among the Hermès and Cartier boutiques. McNall named his business Summa Gallery, with summa taken from the Latin for “highest.” McNall had started as a coin collector and dealer, but his introduction to Hecht had given him a new connection to the world of vases and statues. Hecht became McNall’s top supplier of ancient art, and his business partner.
McNall’s timing was good, but his West Coast location was even better. Following the 1976 death of J. Paul Getty, the Malibu museum that the billionaire had established began a buying spree. The Getty Museum’s antiquities curator, Jiri Frel, went into overdrive in an attempt to catch up with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the great European museums, which had already had centuries to amass their Greek, Roman, and Etruscan holdings, during times of very different and mostly lax legal and ethical norms. Frel, a Czech who had briefly worked for von Bothmer at the Met before Getty himself snatched him away for his new museum, was everything McNall could want in a new and nearby client. To start, he had millions to spend and display cases to fill.
Frel would even accept choice pieces from McNall to display on loan at the Getty—giving McNall a prestigious setting in which he could show his merchandise to private Hollywood clients. In some cases, those clients would buy the vases from McNall and then donate them to the museum, making money from the transactions by taking inflated tax deductions—backed up, of course, by exaggerated appraisals from Frel and McNall. Everyone benefited, as long as Hecht kept coming up with more goods, which he did.
McNall’s job was finding more and bigger clients. He didn’t know it at the time, but he had already met his single biggest buyer in March 1978 at the Hollywood Park racetrack in Inglewood, California. McNall had just bought a young Thoroughbred in training named Ruggedness when the agent who handled the sale introduced him to the seller, fifty-two-year-old Nelson Bunker Hunt, a son of oil tycoon H. L. Hunt.
At that first meeting, Bunker Hunt and Bruce McNall had just exchanged pleasantries. But a year later, at Arcadia California’s Santa Anita Park, the billionaire Texan approached McNall, who easily recognized the heavyset Hunt, who towered over him at more than six feet and wore glasses with huge, square lenses. His slicked-back hair made him look like a 1950s executive. Hunt had heard that McNall sold ancient coins, and he peppered him with questions about gold and silver. What Hunt was getting at, amid a recession and the Arab oil embargo, was where he might stash his wealth.
Watching the races together, Hunt told McNall he was worried that communists would take over America with the help of a “Jewish conspiracy” in the government. Either that, or the economy would fall apart, leading to civil unrest, martial law, and the devaluation of paper money. Only hard assets would be worth anything, he told McNall, and so he was buying precious metals. While McNall disagreed with Hunt’s views, he could see this would be the beginning of a profitable relationship.
McNall got Bunker Hunt—and his younger brother, William Herbert Hunt—hooked on ancient coins, bronze statues, and, eventually, vases.
“I’ve got something to knock your socks off,” Hecht told McNall. “It’s another Euphronios.”
After all those years, Hecht still had the chalice. Partly because of the whiff of scandal surrounding his sale of the matching krater to the Met, Hecht hadn’t found a buyer for the smaller cup in the years since. The way the newspapers had plastered his name and picture all over their pages was a curse for a dealer in the subterranean antiquities world. On a few occasions, Hecht had teased McNall about having the cup, but had never handed it over to his new partner in America to find a buyer.
Hecht was torn about whether, and how, to sell the smaller twin of the Sarpedon krater. “He was bitter about the hassle that was placed on him with the Euphronios krater at the Met,” Mc recalls. Hecht knew that by bringing the cup to market the old dispute might resurface.
But Hecht also figured the heat might finally be off. The Italian courts had found there was not enough evidence to prosecute him, and the Manhattan prosecutors dropped their effort to get the grand jury to hand down an indictment. If indeed enough time had passed, then McNall seemed to have found in the Hunt brothers the sort of buyers who could pay good money. Hecht put the proposed sale in the hands of his new L.A.-based partner. As a classics buff, McNall was thrilled to have the chance to sell a kylix by ancient Greece’s greatest vase painter. And then Hecht had one more treat for him: yet another Euphronios.
What incredible luck Hecht seemed to have. First he had come up with the krater to sell to the Met—only the sixth known vase signed by Euphronios as its painter and just the fourth that was anywhere near intact—and then he happened to have its smaller match, also signed. Now, out of the blue, he had a fragmentary krater, also painted by Euphronios, and with the artist’s signature on it as proof. What a streak. After a drought of centuries, Hecht had gotten his hands on at least three signed Euphronioses (by the early 1970s an unsigned one also showed up at the Munich antiquities museum, a client of Hecht’s), nearly doubling the number of signed vases painted by the ancient master to nine. But where did they come from, and how much of a coincidence could it really be that the same dealer had gotten his hands on all of the newly surfaced vases?
Hecht told McNall that the fragmentary vase, which depicted Heracles killing his foe Kyknos, was a recent acquisition of his. “It was on the market,” Hecht told McNall, so he went and bought it for somewhere between $800,000 and $900,000—from Giacomo Medici, according to McNall’s account of what Hecht told him. It was a repeat of the original Euphronios krater deal. And as he had done nearly a decade earlier with the Met’s complete vase, Hecht sent the fragmentary krater to Fritz Bürki in Zurich to piece together.
But where was the kylix? Hecht told McNall that the cup was “in Norway or something,” says McNall, who didn’t buy the story as anything more than Hecht speaking, as usual, in his own quirky coded language. “That’s his translation that it’s on ice,” McNall thought of the Scandinavian tale.
McNall believed he knew better. For one, Hecht had already said he’d bought the Met’s Sarpedon krater from Medici and explained how it had been smuggled out of Italy. “I was well aware from Bob that the krater was from Giacomo,” McNall says. Hecht would even tell McNall stories about a box of fragments and the train ride to Lugano. Strangely, Hecht never specifically told McNall how he’d gotten the matching chalice. McNall only knew that Hecht had had the cup since around the same time that the Met bought its krater in 1972. He just assumed that tomb robbers had found the two matching Sarpedon vases in the same sepulcher, though he had no proof.
Anyhow, it wasn’t in McNall’s interest to solve such mysteries. He had money to make. Hecht and McNall would pitch the two vases to Bunker Hunt as a package deal.
Hunt was a collector, but not a rabid one. He liked coins, but he wasn’t a huge fan of ancient art, unless he could be convinced that what he was looking at was “important stuff.” His buying was part of a bigger plan he and his brother had to invest in hard assets that would survive a world economic collapse, and the antiquities were practically a sideshow to a huge gamble the Hunts were starting to take: an attempt to corner the world’s market in raw silver.
As Bunker Hunt and his brother bought up silver, they also wanted to amass a selection of enduring ancient art and coins that would qualify as a great collection. McNall, with Hecht in the background, hoped to take the Hunt holdings up a notch. Hecht sent McNall photos of the two pieces. In the pictures the cup appeared to be restored from fragments, but it was pretty much all there. The krater, which was really just a collection of shards composing a quarter of a complete vase, didn’t quite look like much. The painting was stunning, but Bürki hadn’t yet done his handiwork because they thought other fragments might come onto the market. There’d be no point gluing it all together if they’d have to take it apart again to stick in extra bits. For the pictures, Hecht had done his best to arrange the pieces in a way that would give potential buyers a sense of the pot’s former grandeur. It would have to do.
Photos in hand, McNall flew to Dallas sometime in 1979 and met with Bunker Hunt. “These are great pieces,” McNall explained to his client. “They’re expensive. You’re not getting them for a song. And we’re not going to find things of this caliber again.”
Hunt took a look at the photos.
“Let’s get them,” he said.
McNall called Hecht and told him to go ahead and have Bürki glue the vase together.
Bunker Hunt certainly didn’t get the vases for a song. The Sarpedon chalice, which Hecht had offered to the Met six years earlier for $70,000, went for about ten times that to the Texas billionaire. McNall sold him the fragmentary krater for a bit more than a million dollars. In all, the pair cost about $2 million.
Normally McNall and Hecht would have split the profit from the sale, but this transaction was different. Sure, for the fragmentary krater, which had netted about $250,000, the two partners could share the profit evenly. Hecht had only recently bought the piece—or at least that’s what he’d told McNall—and the return on his investment was modest enough. The Sarpedon chalice was another story. Hecht had owned the cup long enough in the years preceding the partnership with McNall that he would take most of the proceeds. To calculate a theoretical profit, the two dealers made up a wholesale price—something between $600,000 and $700,000. McNall took half of the roughly $200,000 theoretical markup they had charged Bunker Hunt.
Hecht did much better, probably banking a $700,000 profit on the cup for which he’d paid less than $70,000. Euphronios’s Sarpedon chalice may have been the smaller twin of his grand krater at the Met, but it brought Hecht almost the same payday. The difference was that Hecht had paid handsomely for the krater, and not nearly as much for the chalice.
But maybe that original seller—whether in Scandinavia, Italy, or Switzerland—would someday get another crack at owning the kylix, and another chance to make the profit Hecht had denied him.
Stranger things have happened in the antiquities trade.
It was a busy time for Robert Hecht. On November 14, 1979, he made a deal for the six-and-a-half-foot-tall statue of the Empress Sabina that Medici had seen in Munich—selling it to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. According to the museum’s official record, none other than Fritz Bürki, the Swiss restorer, had sold it to the MFA, and the marble giant’s provenance was the conveniently vague “said to have been in an aristocratic family collection in Bavaria.” The paperwork showed Hecht had simply acted as an agent for the seller, just as he had claimed to have done when he sold the Met its Sarpedon krater.
Bürki’s real calling, however, was reassembling smashed vases, and lately he had been toiling on the fragmentary Euphronios krater that Bunker Hunt had agreed to buy from Bruce McNall.
Bürki had done wonderful work before, but the job he did turning a quarter of a krater into an entire vase was in itself a masterpiece. The thing was missing both its handles, almost all its base, all but slivers of its rim, and almost all its back face, save some bigger fragments depicting part of a pipe player and a javelin thrower. The front, which was mostly preserved, showed the stunning scene of a bearded and curly-haired Heracles, wearing his customary lion’s skin, as he slays his rival Kyknos with a spear. Rendered in Euphronios’s trademark fine lines, a warrior woman strides alongside the Greek hero—who was also worshipped by the Etruscans as Hercle and later by the Romans as Hercules. Working in plastic, and using an imagination largely informed by the architecture of the Met’s Sarpedon krater, Bürki managed to set the fragments into a structure that stood on its own, even if most of it was undecorated blackspace.
His work completed, it was time to ship the fragmentary krater and the Sarpedon kylix to America. Fortunately for Hecht, there was no need to trek to Scandinavia for the cup. In fact, Bürki could pack up the vases together. The chalice had been in his home workshop for years.
Making matters even easier, the shipping address for the precious cargo wasn’t Hunt’s home in Dallas. The two “new” Euphronioses were heading straight to a familiar home for fresh antiquities, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu. The museum’s antiquities chief, Jiri Frel, loved having prestige objects on loan to his growing, but relatively insignificant, collection. And for businessmen like Bunker Hunt and Bruce McNall, there was nothing like a stint in a museum to enhance the commercial value of an art investment.
The chalice and the fragmentary krater arrived at the museum on February 28,1980. The paperwork for the loans said the two vases were at the museum for study, examination, and display with the permanent collection. Museum staff also recorded that the Getty’s conservation department was treating the krater, which Bürki had had a first shot at restoring.
Although the vases were Bunker Hunt’s property, McNall and Frel disguised the ownership, registering the loan as being from Bürki or Hecht or McNall—to this day McNall can’t keep it straight, mostly because it didn’t really matter. For official purposes, the Getty listed the partial krater and the Sarpedon chalice as “anonymous loan.”
A year after von Bothmer had declared that the kylix had “temporarily disappeared from view,” the earliest known work by Euphronios had reappeared—in Malibu.
It was 1980, and for the first time since Etruscans had buried it in a Cerveteri tomb, the cup went on public view.