The Euphronios Krater, UNESCO, and Illegal Excavations
A krater is a decorative bowl the Ancient Greeks used to mix wine with water. Euphronius—an Athenian vase painter active in the late 6th, and early 5th century BCE—was a highly influential painter, and was instrumental in the transition from the Late Archaic style of vase art to the Early Classical style. Euphronios and about six other contemporary artists—known by art historians as the Pioneer Group—revolutionized the red figure vase painting technique (as seen pictured above).
There are 27 vases painted by Euphronius currently in existence, and the Euphronios Krater is the most renowned example of his work due to the brightness of its colors and the fact that it is completely intact. It is also remarkable in that it was signed by both Euphronios and the potter, Euxitheos.
In 1972, American antiquities dealer Robert Hecht Jr. sold the Krater to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1.2 million. Hecht claimed to have acquired the piece from a Lebanese dealer named Dikran Sarrafian, whose family had owned the piece since 1920.
Because he had documentation to verify this, the Met deemed his custody of the Krater legal under the standards put in place by UNESCO in 1970 (see below), and concluded that their purchase too would be legal. The Italian government was immediately suspicious, as it suspected that the Krater had been acquired through an illegal excavation, but they could not prove anything at that point in time.
The UNESCO (the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970, in highly simplified terms, set into law that any cultural object which had been stolen or illegally excavated after 1970 had to be returned to its country of origin. Every country which ratified the Convention had to follow these terms regardless of the year at which it was ratified. Italy ratified it in 1978, and the United States ratified it in 1983. You can read the full text of the Convention, including the set definition of “cultural property,” here.
The installation of this law caused museums, archives, and dealers to pay much better attention to the documentation of objects they wished to acquire into their collections. If they could not verify that the object had been acquired legally after 1970, or they could not verify the provenance of objects held in private hands before 1970, the repository would not accept the item. As you may imagine, this only resulted in the creation of very impressive forgeries of documents.
Which brings us back to the Euphronios Krater. Despite the Italian government’s continued belief that the Krater had been illegally excavated, the Met would not discuss the issue until 2001. Between 2001 and 2005 it came to light that Hecht had not purchased the piece from Dikran Sarrafian, but had knowingly purchased it from a network of illegal excavators headed by Italian art dealer Gaicomo Medici. The Krater has been illegally excavated from an Etruscan tomb in 1971, and smuggled out of the country by Hecht shortly thereafter.
Hecht is currently standing trial on allegations of trafficking illicit antiquities, and Medici’s court hearings began in 2005. In 2006, after all of this had come to light, talks between the Met and the Italian government started up again, and in January of 2008, the Krater was returned to Italian soil.