The Python krater. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Authorities Seize Ancient Vase from Metropolitan Museum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York surrendered a 2,300-year old painted vessel, known as a bell krater, to law enforcement on July 24 after a warrant was issued to the museum based on evidence that the artifact had been looted from Italy in the 1970s, Tom Mashberg of the New York Times reports.

The painted vase by the Greek artist Python, considered to be one of the best vase painters of his time, depicts Dionysus, the god of the harvest, driving a cart that is pulled by a satyr. It is now in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. Photos sent by a forensic archaeologist based in Europe had prompted the investigation.

Forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis, who had been tracking stolen antiquities for more than a decade, originally published an article about a Greco-Roman terracotta vase from 360 BCE in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection that he surmised was looted in an issue of the Journal of Art Crime in 2014. The piece was purchased legally by the museum from a Sotheby’s auction in 1989 for $90,000. A representative from the auction house did not name the consignor, mentioning privacy concerns, but said Sotheby’s did not find any issues surrounding its provenance when the sale took place.

It appears the vase was indeed pilfered by tomb raiders, and will likely be returned to Italy. Tsirogiannis based his conclusions on inventory Polaroids that belonged to Giacomo Medici, an art dealer who was arrested twenty years ago, and then convicted in 2004 of conspiracy to traffic in antiquities (Tsirogiannis had access to the photos via the Greek and Italian governments). In 2008, another ancient vessel, the Euphronios Krater, was taken from the Met because it had been lifted from an ancient Italian burial ground. Police and Met officials believe that both vessels went through Medici’s hands.

Tsirogiannis claims the Met never responded when he reached out to the institution about the antiquity. Frustrated, he sent his evidence to Matthew Bogdanos, an art-crime specialist, last spring. “When I sent American police the information, they immediately told me that this was ‘a great case.’ It was abundantly clear that this rare object had been stolen,” said Tsirogiannis.

The Met says it never ignored the archaeologist’s warnings about the vase—museum officials were concerned to see Medici’s name associated with the work, so a message was informally sent to Italian law enforcement, but a response was never received. So then the museum got in touch with the Italian Culture Ministry to resolve the matter. According to the Met, it was waiting to hear from the ministry when Manhattan prosecutors contacted the museum about the vessel.

Medici, who is now seventy-nine years old, says he has no recollection of ever encountering the Python krater. He was let out of house arrest in 2016 after serving four years of an eight-year sentence, which was reduced for good behavior, along with a two-year amnesty provision given to all Italian prisoners. “I am a free man. I went on trial, it lasted years, I was convicted for some of the objects and now I have nothing more to do with the justice system. The story is finished,” he said.

But it is still not over for the Met—in the wake of the vase incident, an ancient sculpture of a bull’s head from its collection was also taken into custody by Manhattan law enforcement. It is suspected that it may have been looted during Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s. After researching the piece, a Met curator raised questions about its provenance. The museum contacted Lebanese officials about the work, who in turn asked American authorities to retrieve it. Lynda and William Beierwaltes of Colorado, the couple who lent the work to the Met, claim they have clear title to the head and have sued the Manhattan prosecutors so that it may be returned.