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Auction of the Century

Italian investigators took just two weeks to track down Editions Services, the company identified by Sotheby’s as the source of the artifacts stolen from the five-hundred-year-old de Marchi tower. The firm’s address was 7 Avenue Krieg in Geneva, in the offices of a man named Henri Albert Jacques. On June 2, 1987, Swiss officers questioned the fifty-seven-year-old on behalf of the Italian art police—and had a tough time of it. The Geneva native, it turned out, knew his legal rights, making him the embodiment of Swiss financial secrecy.

“This is an inquest being conducted by Italian authorities in Rome,” he reminded the Swiss police at the outset. “Given that, I’ll just say that in the first place, as far as I know, no criminal complaint has been transmitted here.”

Jacques would cooperate only as much as he wanted to. He explained that he was the administrator of Editions, a company based in Panama and established on September 4, 1981. “As far as the company goes, I only have an administrative function,” he said. This assertion wasn’t unusual. It’s common for firms incorporated or based in jurisdictions such as Switzerland or the Caribbean to simply use an address, and an administrator such as Jacques, to maintain a legal presence. Several other companies he serviced shared the same 7 Avenue Krieg mailing address.

Jacques did briefly address questions about the three artifacts Sotheby’s had pulled from its sale the previous month. He said it would be hard to prove that the column capital and the sarcophagus front had come from the burglary. And, he said, the child’s marble coffin had belonged to the person who consigned it to Editions for three years, long before the burglary.

His opinion didn’t really matter, however. He was just an administrative front for the antiquities traffickers. What the Italians really wanted to know—and what they hoped the Swiss could squeeze out of Jacques—was the name of the person or people behind the sale.

“As far as the provenance of these objects goes, I don’t want to reveal the identity of the people who consigned them to Editions Services S.A.,” he said in the written deposition he signed for the police. “And really, in my opinion, this is all just an attempt to identify these people for financial reasons,” he said, invoking Swiss financial privacy laws to distinguish this inquiry as a commercial affair, rather than a legitimate criminal probe. “In any case, I’m available to answer any questions formulated by a prosecutor in the context of an official trial.

“I’ve known my clients for a long time and they are, to my knowledge, very honest,” Jacques said. Then he sent the police packing. The Italians would need to get much better evidence if they were ever going to get this front man to reveal his secrets.

Giacomo Medici’s attempt to make millions in a single sale to the Getty wasn’t looking good. On June 26, 1987, the museum’s antiquities chief, Marion True, broke the bad news. Her bosses didn’t want to spend $2 million on twenty plates that all looked essentially the same to the untrained eye. Although she hoped to change the museum director’s mind, she wasn’t hopeful. The Getty returned the plates to Medici in Geneva.

In Dallas, the Hunt brothers also saw their hopes for a big deal fall apart. Their plan to amass raw silver had backfired. During their spree spanning 1979 and 1980, they had managed to purchase some 59 million ounces of the precious metal—then estimated at a whopping one-third of the world’s entire supply. But then the silver market collapsed, making it impossible to unload their holdings and sticking the Hunts with $1.5 billion in losses. Although the brothers denied any wrongdoing in their silver purchases, the losses and lawsuits forced them to file for bankruptcy protection from their creditors in 1988. The following year the Internal Revenue Service said Bunker Hunt owed $730 million in taxes and interest, and his brother owed a bit less than half that much. In all, Bunker owed creditors about $1.5 billion, and his brother owed nearly $1.2 billion.

As the Hunts worked their way out of bankruptcy, they needed money to pay their tax bills. One asset that had retained its value was the antiquities. In November 1989, the brothers announced that Sotheby’s would auction their vases, statues, and coins. After being squirreled away in Bunker Hunt’s private collection for nearly a decade, the Sarpedon chalice would be brought into public view again.

To drum up interest, Sotheby’s flew selected pieces from the collection across Europe, to London, Paris, Frankfurt, Munich, Monte Carlo, Zurich, Geneva, and Asia, hitting Hong Kong, Singapore, and, in Japan—a growing destination for antiquities—both Tokyo and Osaka. Bunker Hunt, who would get to keep some of the auction proceeds if the sales exceeded certain targets, joined the publicity parade, doing press interviews in New York, lamenting the loss of his collectibles.

“I hate to have to sell them, but that’s what life is. Sometimes you buy and sometimes you sell,” Hunt said during a preauction interview with Dolores Barclay of the Associated Press. “It’s like friends. You hope to make new friends as time goes on, and you hope you won’t lose all your old friends. I’ll miss them and it’s been a great pleasure collecting them and owning them, but I’ll just have to go and do the best I can. I don’t know if I’ll ever be an art collector again, but I enjoy going to museums.”

“But,” he said with a sigh, “all good things come to an end sometimes, and I know these new buyers will enjoy them.”

Despite the Sotheby’s scandal involving Lot 540—which Giacomo Medici’s Hydra Galerie had put up for sale—Medici was still a client of the auction house. So it was his luck that they were about to stage the most important antiquities sale of the past hundred years, if not longer. Medici wasn’t the only one excited at the prospect of bidding on the Hunt collection. “We are hoping for a feeding frenzy,” gushed R. Carter Pate, the trustee in charge of liquidating Bunker Hunt’s estate.

Although the coin sales would drag on for months, the finest antiquities would take the stage immediately. Sotheby’s scheduled the first of the sales for the evening of Tuesday, June 19, 1990, at which they would auction Bunker Hunt’s collection of Greek vases and his brother’s collection of Greek, Roman, and Etruscan bronze statues and a few other ancient odds and ends. In all, fifty-three lots were up that night. But the Euphronios chalice was the pint-sized star of the auction. Sotheby’s even chose “Sarpedon” as the code word that absentee buyers should use when sending in bids for that evening’s sale.

Vases such as the two by Euphronios were so rare—and the practice of artists putting their names on their works was so new and unusual back in 520 B.C.—that Sotheby’s had never before sold any signed work of ancient art. For fans of Euphronios, this would be a once-in-several-lifetimes chance to buy one of his pots; one hadn’t been up for auction since 1841, when King Ludwig I of Bavaria bought Euphronios’s Geryon-Heracles cup in Frankfurt from Lucien Bonaparte’s princely collection.

To build the hype and boost the sale, the auctioneers courted the media. On June 4, 1990, they gave a private preview to Suzan Mazur, a journalist for the Economist, and a photographer working with her, George Obremski. Mazur had come to see Euphronios—both the Sarpedon chalice and the other, fragmentary piece Bunker Hunt had bought from Bruce McNall.

Sotheby’s Richard Keresey, a New York-based antiquities expert, helped give the tour. First they took a look at the fragmentary krater, and then they moved on to the Sarpedon kylix. “Here’s the cup,” Keresey said as they approached the chalice that Euphronios had made some 2,510 years earlier. Mazur was seeing the objects without the customary glass case separating her from these masterworks. The image of Sleep and Death hauling Sarpedon’s bleeding corpse peered up at them.

“Quite a lot of wine,” Mazur said, eyeing the footwide rim of the shallow cup.

“A lot of wine,” the Sotheby’s expert said. “They mixed their wine with water.”

“And how much of this is reconstructed?” Mazur asked, seeing that the cup had visible fissures and undecorated black areas that showed where the original clay had been patched by restorers.

“Pretty much what you can see, the crackled parts,” Keresey said, pointing out that the main artwork, however, hadn’t been badly hurt by the millennia of damage.

“Is it heavy?” Mazur asked.

“You can hold it,” Keresey offered.

The unexpected and rare treat unnerved the journalist. Her skin would touch the same surface Euphronios’s had, the same surface the Etruscans had handled and tomb robbers and smugglers had passed their fingers over. This cup had ruined Dietrich von Bothmer’s archaeology career and had made its way from Robert Hecht to Bruce McNall to Bunker Hunt. None of them had damaged the precious kylix. So as much as Mazur wanted to hold the masterpiece, she didn’t want to break it.

She steadied her palms, slid them under the cup, and lifted. “I’d better hold it with both hands,” she said.

Keresey, sensing what the journalist might be thinking, reassured her. “They broke all the time, I think, in antiquity but they always had repairers,” he said. Mazur gently placed the cup back down.

They didn’t know it then, as Mazur finished her tour, but both of them had good reason to fear for the cup’s safety.

On June 15, 1990, Sotheby’s opened its doors, and the general public had its chance to see the chalice and the other treasures of the Hunt collection in an auction preview. The same day, a Friday, Giacomo Medici landed in New York with his wife, Maria Luisa, and daughter, Monica.

First they checked into Medici’s usual haunt, the Westbury Hotel, on the Upper East Side, halfway between Sotheby’s and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The family visited the auction house on East Seventy-second Street, where they saw the chalice, sitting under glass atop a white pedestal, spotlighted by the track lighting attached to the ceiling above. And they dropped in on the Met to see the cup’s twin, the Euphronios krater, the highlight of Medici’s career almost twenty years earlier. That, too, was spotlighted in its own glass box, like the vases on sale at Sotheby’s.

On the morning of the auction, Tuesday, June 19, 1990, Medici swung by Sotheby’s for another look at the merchandise. Outside, Maria Luisa and Monica posed for Giacomo, who took their photo beneath a sign that said SOTHEBY’S. Inside, Giacomo posed for a snapshot beside the fragmentary krater by Euphronios. In the slightly out-of-focus picture, Medici is smiling. He is also wearing a green Lacoste V-neck sweater.

When he returned that evening for the auction, Medici hadn’t changed his outfit. He had also asked that Sotheby’s identify him only as a “European dealer,” keeping his name private. To those who didn’t know him, Medici was simply an anonymous bidder in a green Lacoste.

Monica and Maria Luisa came with Giacomo for the 7:00 P.M. auction, but stood apart as he did his bidding just a few rows back from the front. Robert Hecht was just in front of him, and the Sicilian dealer Gianfranco Becchina sat just behind Medici. Medici wasn’t the only collector who was prepared to do battle. Leon Levy, the financier, sat not far away, to Medici’s left, on the opposite side of the central aisle of the auction floor, near London dealer Robin Symes.

Levy and his wife, Shelby White, had done their homework and were intent on taking home a Euphronios. In a notebook, Levy had recorded his lot-by-lot overview of the looming sale, based on advice he had gotten from Robert Guy, a vase expert who had been the Princeton University Art Museum’s associate curator of ancient art since 1984 (and would hold that post until 1991, when he became a senior research fellow at Oxford University’s Corpus Christi College).

The notes on the recomposed krater by Euphronios were glowing. “Great jewel—for me it’s the star despite its fragmentary condition. Better than the kylix cup,” referring to the Sarpedon chalice, adding this comment about the cup: “Having an opportunity at it is so rare—price—less than a $1 million.” But Levy was leaning toward the fragmentary krater instead: “Quality of drawing is lovely—Incredibly powerful iconographically remarkable—Athena majestically moving, an absolute must.”

Robin Symes, who would be bidding for Levy, sat next to his partner, Christos Michaelides. The two worked as a team, with Michaelides doing the actual hand raising for the duo. The auction got off to a quick start, with Medici capturing Lot 3, an Attic black-figure kylix, for a total of $82,500. It was just an appetizer. When Lot 5 came up—the fragmentary krater by Euphronios—Medici and the Symes team squared off, joined by a flurry of competition from the auction room and telephone bidders. Medici stopped bidding at about $1.5 million, just $100,000 shy of the $1.6 million final bid. Including Sotheby’s commission, Symes and Michaelides, and by extension, Leon Levy and his wife, Shelby White, won the fragmentary krater depicting Heracles and Athena for $1.76 million.

Medici was steamed. He had only one more shot at getting his hands back on a Euphronios. Over the years, he had seen how valuable these pieces had become, and how much profit he had missed out on.

Lot 6, the Sarpedon chalice, came up next. In his head, Medici egged himself on as he began to bid. “Giacomo, have courage,” he told himself, as the price grew. He was tempted to drop out as Symes kept bidding higher, this time on behalf of the Met and its Greek and Roman curator, Dietrich von Bothmer, who desperately wanted the cup. Medici just pushed himself, and the price, higher. “Buy it now and you’ll sell it for more at an auction,” he told himself.

When the bidding ended, Medici, the man in the green Lacoste sweater, had bought the Sarpedon chalice, Euphronios’s earliest known work, for $675,000—plus Sotheby’s 10 percent commission—for a total of $742,500. To wind down, Medici snapped up another three vases, Lots 11, 12, and 13, for $464,750, before stopping.

Von Bothmer, one of the few people who knew Medici’s identity, approached him afterward. The German curator was furious. “We want to buy it,” von Bothmer barked, and he even offered “a little bonus” if Medici would immediately flip the chalice and sell it directly to the museum before taking it out of New York. Medici declined.

By the time the evening ended, Sotheby’s was crowing about the auction’s success. “Tonight’s sale was a landmark sale of Antiquities and Ancient coins at auction bringing $20,061,250,” the auction house said in its after-sale report, released that night. “The record sale of Antiquities of $11.4 million exceeded the presale estimate of the sale by nearly $4 million and set a record for the sale of a Greek Vase at auction,” a reference to the record $1.76 million for the fragmentary Euphronios. Every single lot had sold, making the $11.4 million total a record, too, the most spent at a single auction on antiquities.

On other matters, Sotheby’s was less transparent. Although some buyers were made public, it listed the purchasers of the two Euphronios vases as “European Dealer.” The term, which masked the identities of Symes and Medici, left open the possibility that the two pots had the same buyer. This would later lead to some confusion over the fate of the Sarpedon chalice. On June 25, 1990, Symes sold the fragmentary krater to Levy, who was not secretive about being its owner. That led some in the art world, including the Met’s former director Thomas Hoving, to assume that Levy and White had also bought the chalice. But to the public, the whereabouts of the earliest known Euphronios again became hazy.

For Sotheby’s the sale was more about transactions than transparency. The auction house issued Invoice No. 6042 015 for Medici’s purchases to a company based at 7 Avenue Krieg in Geneva: Editions Services.

Never mind that the Carabinieri were still trying to figure out who was behind Editions, or that the company was being investigated by the Italian police after it allegedly attempted to sell stolen artifacts through the auction house’s London office three years earlier. Sotheby’s knew Giacomo Medici was behind Editions. Ever since Medici had given up his Geneva gallery, pushed underground by the bad publicity from the botched sale of Lot 540, he had been conducting his business through the shell company, which had become a regular Sotheby’s client.

At the end of the Hunt auction, Sotheby’s billed Editions Services for $1,289,750 and prepared to ship the rare kylix to Geneva.

In the meantime, others were trying to get their hands on the cup.

Alain Pasquier of the Louvre, who had been at the auction, made a pitch to Medici. He was curating an exhibit on Euphronios in Paris, scheduled for September. “I’d be honored if you could lend me the cup for the show,” the Louvre’s head of Greek and Roman art said to Medici after the auction. Medici was intrigued by the idea. “I’ll do everything possible,” he told Pasquier.

Medici’s work in New York was done. He placed bids for another Sotheby’s auction the following day, arranged the shipping details for his five new acquisitions from the Hunt collection, and then, along with his wife and daughter, drove back to the airport and flew directly to Geneva on Swiss Air. Medici needed to prepare for the arrival of his masterpieces. He bought a fireproof safe and had it installed in his Geneva warehouse.

Soon enough, this would be the Sarpedon chalice’s new home. On July 17, 1990, Sotheby’s Art Transport Department shipped the whole horde to Mat Securitas, Medici’s shipping agent in Geneva.

Buying the Sarpedon chalice would have been one of von Bothmer’s final acts as the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Greek and Roman curator. Later that year he retired as head of the department, but managed to stay on as Distinguished Research Curator, a position endowed by a group of donors that included Leon Levy and Shelby White. In a way, von Bothmer got the consolation prize from the Hunt auction. Levy and White later agreed to lend their new fragmentary Euphronios in 1999 to the Met, where White has served as a trustee. But sitting under glass not far from the Sarpedon krater, the two vases, each signed by Euphronios as painter, would silently raise a collective question: With so few Euphronios vases known, how could these two, plus the matching Sarpedon chalice, have suddenly surfaced by such similar means?

As the Louvre prepared its Euphronios exhibit three months after the auction, more scholars began to pay more attention to the Greek master than ever before, and the riddles of the Euphronios vases became clearer. In preparation for the Paris show, the Getty and museums across Europe, including in Italy, sent vases signed or attributed to Euphronios to the Louvre. But there were two notable exceptions. The Met declined to send the Euphronios krater. And while Medici planned to attend the exhibit’s opening, he declined to loan his chalice. The reason, he said, was that the cup had failed to arrive in Geneva soon enough for him to send it to Paris.

As a result, the cup hasn’t been seen in public since, though its odyssey has continued.

Sarpedon was the only no-show in Paris when the usual suspects of the antiquities community—the dealers, curators, and smugglers—gathered for the exhibit. Giacomo Medici checked into the Hotel Normandy, near the Louvre and a block from Rue de Rivoli and the Tuileries gardens. After attending the opening day of the exhibit, along with other members of the general public and the collecting community, Medici hit the Louvre gift shop to buy books on Greek pottery. Though there was no official occasion to mark the start of the Euphronios show, the Louvre curator Alain Pasquier helped arrange a dinner. Giacomo Medici, his old business partner Robert Hecht, the Getty’s Marion True, and a few others gathered at a chic hotel restaurant for what would be a last supper of sorts.

Medici and True discussed the latest tidbits by Euphronios to surface on the market: three new fragments that fit into the massive kylix painted by his protégé Onesimos, with scenes from the fall of Troy. The Getty had already bought most of the cup from Frieda Tchacos in 1983, and more from Medici’s shop. The Met’s von Bothmer had donated to the Getty the fragment that he had bought decades earlier from Robert Hecht. Now these three additional fragments were making the rounds. According to Medici’s account of the meal, True told him she had recently been offered the pieces, but declined to buy them because they were too expensive. Medici says he told True that he, too, had heard the fragments were available.

Medici and True also discussed a topic just beginning to make trouble for them: provenance. True told Medici how important it was for museums such as hers to be ever more scrupulous about knowing the origins of the things they bought. Italy had started pestering her and the Getty to return some allegedly stolen works. It was time to clean up the antiquities business, she told her dining partners.

As Medici, True, Hecht, and their friends partied in Paris to celebrate Euphronios, their world was about to implode—and the Greek master’s finest works would be at the center of the wreckage.

One good thing about publishing antiquities of questionable origin is that such publications can inadvertently prove an artifact was looted. That couldn’t have been the Getty’s intention when it commissioned Dyfri Williams, keeper of the British Museum’s Greek and Roman department, to write a twenty-four-page article on the giant Onesimos-Euphronios kylix that the Getty had been assembling for seven years. However, no single article could have exposed an instance of illicit excavation better than this one did.

Presented in 1991 in a glossy, in-house publication called Greek Vases in the J. Paul Getty Museum Volume 5, the kylix’s coming out dropped two major clues. The first could be seen in the photographs, some of which exposed the bottom of the cup’s base. There, etched into the black foot, were angular letters from a long-unused alphabet. Even though the vase had been made in Athens, the words scratched onto the bottom were not made with the familiar Greek letters still used today. No, this was Etruscan script. Although there is always the chance that a Greek vase could be dug up anywhere in the Mediterranean where ancient Greeks traded or had colonies, the Etruscan writing pinpointed the dig spot. Any archaeologist who glanced at Figure 8k in the article would know this kylix came from Italy.

But Williams’s only mention of the scribbling came in the last line of his piece: “The graffito under the foot has been published by Jacques Hergon.” And indeed a footnote refers to an article in the previous volume of the Getty’s Greek Vases series, published in 1989, “Graffites étrusque au J. Paul Getty Museum.” The Getty, it turned out, had revealed the Etrurian origins of Greek pots in its collection two years earlier—in French.

The Etruscan writing on the bottom of the Onesimos-Euphronios cup was just the Williams article’s first clue to illicit origins. The second came just before the footnotes in a passage labeled “ADDENDUM.”

“In November 1990, long after the text of this article was written and submitted, I was kindly shown photographs of a further joining fragment of the Getty Onesimos cup. It is a rim fragment, made up of three pieces,” Williams wrote before describing the decorations, including Ajax’s head and chest on one side and Helen’s outstretched hands on the other.

The British Museum curator knew about the same three fragments on the market that Medici and True had privately discussed over dinner in Paris after the opening of the Euphronios exhibit. Now, instead of this being gossip of the antiquities trade, Williams made public—in a Getty publication—that the Getty’s massive cup had missing bits that were currently circulating for sale. Add to this the photos showing the cup’s Etruscan archaeological origins, and all someone had to do to cause trouble for the Getty would be to decipher the meaning of the graffito on the base and connect it to an actual looting site.

The break came in 1993, when a dig run by Italy’s Archaeological Superintendency for Middle Etruria turned up a large cult edifice dedicated to Heracles, the hero worshipped by the Etruscans as a god. The location was the Sant’Antonio zone of Cerveteri, near where tomb robbers had unearthed the Met’s Sarpedon krater.

The discovery of the sanctuary in Cerveteri had added relevance to the Italian archaeologists because it was connected both to Euphronios, by proximity to his other finds, and to Heracles through the site’s dedication to him. There was one other item that also connected Euphronios to the hero turned god: the giant kylix at the Getty. Scholars had decoded the graffito on the cup’s base, and in the language of ancient Caere, it said “Ercle.” Heracles.

The Getty’s cup had been an offering at an Etruscan temple to Heracles, and now the archaeologists had found the spot. One by one, through scientific excavation, the Italians were closing in on the Euphronios vases of Cerveteri.

The woman who connected the dots was an Italian archaeologist, Maria Antonietta Rizzo, who had worked in Cerveteri. Rizzo chose to unveil her findings at a conference at the American Academy in Rome—Robert Hecht’s old base of operations. Organized by both Italians and Americans, the roundtable discussion on February 18, 1995, was called “Antichita Senza Provenienza,” “Antiquities without Provenance.” Rizzo’s paper was blistering. She explained how the Getty had slowly built up its cup by acquiring fragments four different times from 1983 through 1990. Those acquisitions included the piece that Dietrich von Bothmer donated to the Getty in 1984 and the purchases from Medici’s Geneva gallery. She used the Etruscan inscription “Ercle” on the bottom of the cup’s foot to link the kylix potted by Euphronios to the Heracles site in Cerveteri’s Sant’Antonio zone.

She also presented a partial inventory of other Euphronios works, their murky histories, and their sudden appearances in recent decades, including the fragmentary krater in the Levy-White collection and another partial krater at Munich’s antiquities museum, attributed to Euphronios by the man who sold the vase to the German museum in 1966—Robert Hecht, of course. That Munich krater, Rizzo pointed out, had been augmented with missing fragments as recently as 1988.

“The appearance on the antiquities market of dozens of fragmented vases, and even just fragments themselves, coincides with the most active years of clandestine digging, not just in Cerveteri, but in all the major Etruscan cities,” she said. “These excavations have destroyed entire sites in search of material that could satisfy the increasing needs of collectors, or of scholars who, trying to reconstruct the collected works of great artistic personalities of the past or to add another attribution to their lists of accomplishments—without any supporting evidence of historical context—have become participants in the unprecedented destruction of archaeological areas and monuments that until now had been saved through the passage of millennia.”

She concluded with an appeal: “Colleagues, scholars, museum directors, may I ask you not to encourage the clandestine market, not to continue buying material with unclear provenance? Only in this way can we stop the market from growing, stop the prices from rising—which induces the quest for more objects to sell—and stop the destruction of entire sites in the name of collecting.”

Years would go by before her plea was heard. However, just a few weeks later, the Italian art police in Rome set off a chain reaction that eventually got the world’s attention.

On March 8,1995, the Carabinieri investigating the de Marchi burglary sent a request to the prosecutor in Latina, near the beach resort where the marble coffins, capitals, and other artifacts had been stolen—some of which apparently were put up for sale at Sotheby’s by the Swiss-based company called Editions Services. Having failed in their previous attempt to pry information from Editions’ administrator, Henri Albert Jacques, the Italians had another strategy. They asked the magistrate, Riccardo Audino, to use his authority to make a cross-border “urgent request for judicial assistance” under the terms of a 1959 European convention. Carabinieri marshals Serafino Dell’Avvocato and Bruno Cerone pleaded with the prosecutor to ask his Swiss counterparts to interrogate Jacques to find out who had put the stolen antiquities up for sale at Sotheby’s and to allow the Italian art police to be present at his questioning and that of any other Swiss resident involved in the attempted sale.

Such an official request from a prosecutor would carry the legal weight the earlier attempt had not. The Latina prosecutor immediately agreed, and on April 8, 1995, he sent his request to Geneva.

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