Repatriation of antiquities seeks to limit the looting of art and grave robbery due to the destruction to archaeological sites. Yet, after the return of the 3,500 years old Sarpedon krater to Italy in 2008, it has been proven that these efforts are in vain on that front. What is left to argue in favour of repatriation, then?
The National Archaeological Museum of Cerite does not have its own website. If one were to plan for the details of a visit, travel blogs and the Italian-only entry in Wikipedia have to suffice. A few photos are to be found online. Without digging into newspaper articles from several years ago or literary research, there would be no way to know that one of the most famous ancient works of pottery is on display in this small, local museum for Etruscan art. The krater has come home in 2014, “approximately half a mile away from the Etruscan cemetery where it was once intended – by its last ancient owner – to rest for eternity.” It was a quiet homecoming after the pomp and grandeur upon its arrival in Rome’s Villa Giulia, to where it has been repatriated in 2006 after 34 years on display in a grand room in the Metropolitan Museum of Arts. Despite that Cerite is located about an hour north-northwest of Rome by car, this part of Italy does not receive many tourists, the region is very rural. There is simply no comparing this local Archaeological Museum with the MET in New York City.
This was one of the major points of critique leading up to and during the repatriation process seventeen years ago: Does such a masterpiece, as it has been dubbed many times, not deserve to be viewed by as many people as possible? In other words: Is the context of an “encyclopedic” museum of world history not more fitting for this famous vase than its ancient hometown? Having been created roughly in 515 B.C. in Athens, it was shipped to Caere, Etruria at some point to be used for its intended purpose (mixing wine and water) before it ended up as a funerary object in a large necropolis near what is now Cerveteri, Italy. So, here is where it was finally returned to. Was this for the best?
Arguments against repatriation
In the case of the Sarpedon krater, the objective of giving it back to Italy was to make a statement against buying unprovenanced objects originated from grave robbery, seeing as the MET had bought it without indisputable proof of legal provenance after it had been unearthed illegally in Cerveteri in December 1971. The thing is: repatriation of looted, stolen, and smuggled objects does nothing at all against grave robbery. The market for antiquities has been steadily growing since the 1950s despite stricter regulations and it is not going to stop doing so simply because governments and big museums full of scholars who are rightfully outraged at the destruction of archaeological sites wish it would. Vernon Silver, an American archaeologist, journalist, and writer at Bloomberg News in Rome, points out that “the [Italian] police believe the efforts to push museums and collectors to return illegally dug or exported antiquities has diminished demand from the richest buyers in the market, cutting the incentive for tomb robbers to rob”. However, James Cuno, an American art historian and curator, mentions the impossibility of both guarding every archaeological excavation site ever as well as the a lack of control due to open borders of many states. He also has a lot to say about how ill-suited patrimony laws that he calls “nationalist retentionist cultural property laws” are to protect archaeological sites, because “looting is no leisure time activity. It is an act of desperation.” He is referring to poverty-driven theft here.
Furthermore, he criticizes patrimony laws of the ‘source countries’ as limiting access of the public to antiquities, the argument being that a maximum number of people should be able to see them because antiquity as an era is a part of world history at large. This directly ties into the issue of ownership: Cuno argues that modern nation states have nothing at all to do anymore with their ancient predecessors culturally and that the only link is their shared geographical space. Hence, he concludes that modern nation states should not automatically own every antiquity that comes out of their soil. This would eliminate all rights to reclaiming objects.
Arguments for repatriation
While the political implications of repatriation certainly need to be discussed, flat-out refusing the very idea solely for political assumptions of a nationalist agenda dismisses the fact that millions of objects have been removed from their cultural context without the consent of the people in that culture, ancient or modern. In October 1970, the “UNESCO declared that cultural property ‘constitutes one of the basic elements of civilization and national culture, and that its true value can be appreciated only in relation to the fullest possible information regarding its origin.’” While the ancient cultures are forever gone indeed, their heirs have to decide what to do with the things they left behind. Nations have a legal right to the things dug from their own soil. More importantly, the only way these artifacts can be researched and appreciated to the fullest is within their context. Ripped from that, they have little to say about their own past. Conceding to the theory of world history being best protected and accessed by the public worldwide in encyclopedic museums would also essentially solidify the right of the richest: the more financial opportunities, the more objects of antiquity would be amassed in one place. These encyclopedic museums do have an important role in teaching world history to the public and considering that their archives are filled to the brim, none of the restitution claims seek to empty them, as is feared so often. Repatriation of comparatively few, valuable, outstanding objects grants their recontextualization and thus justice and healing for the robbed cultures.
Cases like the Sarpedon krater contribute to the discussion how modern society interacts and understands the distant past. In this light, its repatriation was a process of a shifting understanding in how to deal with the treasures of antiquity. That lesson can and should not be unlearned.
by Sandra Höhn
 There is only a short description of the museum on the town’s website: https://tarquinia-cerveteri.it/en/cerveteri/museo-nazionale-cerite/ (11/22/2023).
 Spivey, Nigel: The Sarpedon Krater: the life and afterlife of a Greek vase, London 2018, chapter 4. The e-book version sadly does not include page numbers.
 See: Cuno, James: Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the battle over our ancient heritage, Princeton 2008, p. 5.
 See: Brodie, Neil: The Antiquities Trade: Four Case Studies, in: Chappel, Duncan; Hufnagel, Saskia (ed.), Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime: Australasian, European and North American Perspectives, 2014, pp. 15–36. Here: p. 15.
 Link here: See my other blogpost about the destruction of art theft and what is being done about it. Intern: Hier dann Link des ersten Blogbeitrags, sobald veröffentlicht.
 Silver, Vernon: The Lost Chalice: the epic hunt for a priceless masterpiece, New York City 2009, p. 297.
 Cuno, p. xviii among others.
 Ibid, p. xxxii.
 See: Ibid, p. 9.
 Silver, The Lost Chalice, p. 36.
Brodie, Neil: The Antiquities Trade: Four Case Studies, in: Chappel, Duncan; Hufnagel, Saskia (ed.), Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime: Australasian, European and North American Perspectives, 2014, pp. 15–36.
Cuno, James: Who Owns Antiquity? Museums and the battle over our ancient heritage, Princeton 2008.
Silver, Vernon: The Lost Chalice: the epic hunt for a priceless masterpiece, New York City 2009.
Spivey, Nigel: The Sarpedon Krater: the life and afterlife of a Greek vase, London 2018.
Donadio, Rachel: “Visions of Home”, New York Times, 17th April 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 Athens Kylix, bottom :
Für die Urheberrechte: Sailko, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons.
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