Setting into motion a chain of events that would get international media talking about the arguments for and against repatriation of stolen antiquities, the illegal excavation of Greek antique painter Euphronios’ (c. 535 – after 470 BC) masterpiece is a prime example of the multi-layered damages done to scholarship by antiquities theft.
As the story goes, the most valuable of the Ancient Greek potter and painter Euphronios’ ceramic works, a 45cm tall wine mixing bowl known as the Sarpedon krater, was illicitly dug up near Cerveteri, Italy, in December 1971. The illegal plundering of Etruscan graves in that part of Italy was common practice, and perhaps nothing much would have changed about the antiquities trade depending on these illicit excavations if not for the most prized find of that night.
Since 1939, everything pulled from the earth in Italy was the property of the Italian state. Thus, when a landowner found something of archaeological value on their land and the authorities were alerted, the grounds otherwise necessary for farming could be seized by the government for excavation purposes in exchange for a small compensation. Consequently, findings were mostly kept private after World War II: the antiquities found in private soil were sold to well-connected art dealers who smuggled the objects out of the country. It was a long-standing, tried and true system in Tuscany, the old heartlands of Etruria. The very same happened with the Sarpedon krater. It was found in the necropolis Greppe San’Angelo, a prime example for the Etruscan burial practices of big, multi-layered grave complexes that mirrored the houses of the living. But the truth is that not much is known about the Etruscans today. Why? The damage done to their graves by tombaroli, professional grave robbers in it for the money, has been substantial.
The damage made visible
The most pressing problem with grave robbery is the damage done to archaeological context. Without it, the antiquities reveal little about the culture they originally came from to the archaeologists. Aside from that, to get to the valuable objects, graves are deliberately destroyed by the tombaroli. In the case of the Sarpedon krater’s original final resting place, two fake doors were hacked apart with pickaxes out of the assumption that more grave chambers must lie beyond. That turned out not to be the case, but the engravings in the stone doors were lost all the same. The same goes for human remains robbed of their jewelry that could be vital in giving clues to the identity of these buried individuals. In a governmental excavation in 1974 meant to salvage what had been spared in the numerous openings so far, there was little left for the professionals to document of the massive necropolis interpreted by the archaeologists as a royal tomb. The lack of context due to the destruction also made it impossible to say whether the Sarpedon krater, made around 515 B.C. in Athens, had been buried and sealed in the Greppe San’Angelo grave chamber built around 300 B.C., or whether it had been shifted into the chamber from earlier burials.
What is being done about the art theft?
Sold for a million dollars to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1972 by an art dealer who in turn had received it from another dealer whom the tomb robbers had sold it to originally, the Sarpedon krater became a real star among the museum’s antique exhibitions. Because of forged documents about the krater’s provenance (the ownership history of the object) to legitimize its origins, no one was able to prove the illegal nature of the krater’s unearthing during the 1970s. Only 36 years later, a series of court trials against aforementioned art dealers due to other, similar antiquities stolen brought it into public focus again. The Italian government finally won the fight to have it shipped back to Rome among 21 other objects from the MET in January 2006. Italian officials gave the main motivation for Italy’s fight for repatriation as “preserving the ‘context of excavation’ and ‘against clandestine digging and illicit trafficking.’”
By repatriating not only this world-famous Euphronios krater as well as other ceramic works of his, but also an ever-growing list of unrelated antiquities similarly speculated or even proven to have originated in grave robbery, the hopes were that museums would stop buying objects without spotless provenance and thus dry up the market for illegally acquired antiquities. The effectiveness has to be evaluated. While it has been argued that ever-stricter regulation against the international antiquities trade has done nothing at all to limit it, and that quite to the contrary, the criminal market has been growing over recent years, the change in attitude around the Sarpedon krater repatriation cannot be underestimated. The topic of object provenance has been rising in popularity among scholars ever since, leading well-renowned museums to examine their entire archives for stolen, smuggled or objects of questionable legitimacy. Additionally, the conversation around the very difficult related, but separate topic of handling colonial objects in museums today raises questions about where the physical remnants of cultural heritage belong, who should be allowed to exhibit what and whether museums hold a responsibility to answer restitution claims. Together with officials having a sharper eye on their domestic grave pillagers, a focus on provenance of museum collections will hopefully make it harder and harder for art dealers to sell their spoils to these big institutions of authority.
The case of the Sarpedon krater was a starting point for a long, difficult path to changing the way in which current society interacts, understands and interprets antiquities outside of their archaeological context. It raised awareness among the public for the cultural heritage lost in the destruction of grave robbery through media coverage and serves as a prime example of the trade networks for antiquities in Europe and the United States of America. More importantly, it brought into focus the attempt to re-contextualize antiquities within their regional origins as the only means to undo some of the harm inflicted by pillaging graves for their burial objects.
by Sandra Höhn
 See: Spivey, Nigel: The Sarpedon krater. The life and afterlife of a Greek vase, London 2018, p. 28. – According to the Ilias, Sarpedion was a son of Zeus and fought for Troy in the Troian war, he died fighting with Patroclus.
 See: Silver, Vernon: The Lost Chalice: the epic hunt for a priceless masterpiece, New York City 2009, pp. 18-21.
 See: Spivey: The Sarpedon krater, p. 24.
 See: Silver: The Lost Chalice, 5th photo of the photos on sixteen uncounted pages in between pp. 216 and 217.
 See: ibid, pp. 113-116.
 Ibid, p. 252.
 See: Brodie, Neil: The Antiquities Trade: Four Case Studies, in: Chappell, Duncan; Hufnagel, Saskia: Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime: Australasian, European and North American Perspectives, 2014, pp. 15-36. Here: p. 15.
Chappel, Euncan: Hufnagel, Saskia: Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime: Australasian, European and North American Perspectives, 2014.
Watson, Peter; Todeschini, Cecilia: The Medici Conspiracy. The illicit journey of looted antiquities. From Italy’s tomb raiders to the world’s greatest museums, 2007.
*Euphronios or Sarpedon Krater, front side: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/5/59/Euphronios_krater_side_A_MET_L.2006.10.jpg/800px-Euphronios_krater_side_A_MET_L.2006.10.jpg (08/25/2022).
Urheber: Jaime Ardiles-Arce (photographer). Krater by Euphronios (painter) and Euxitheos (potter)., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Euphronios_krater_side_A_MET_L.2006.10.jpg
**Euphronios or Sarpedon Krater, reverse side:
Urheber: Rolfmueller at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Euphronios_krater_side_B_MET_L.2006.10.jpg
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