By: John Dorfman
The Lost Chalice
By Vernon Silver
William Morrow, $26.99
Everybody now knows the story of the Euphronios krater, the sixth-century B.C. Greek masterpiece of vase painting that the Metropolitan Museum gave back to Italy last year. But what about the Euphronios kylix? A companion piece to the krater, this delicate drinking vessel shows an earlier version by the artist of the scene depicted on the krater—the body of the Homeric hero Sarpedon being carried off the battlefield of Troy by Sleep and Death. But unlike the krater, which reposed in a vitrine at the Met for more than 35 years, the elusive kylix has rarely been seen in public since it was discovered in 1971 by Italian tomb robbers in Cerveteri, the same Etruscan burial site where they found the krater.
Vernon Silver, an American journalist based in Rome and a Ph. D. candidate in archaeology at Oxford, has pieced together the scattered sherds of this tale of looting, collecting and criminal justice. Although Silver adds significant detail, the essence of the story was told by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini in The Medici Conspiracy (PublicAffairs, 2006). Once again, the central figure is Giacomo Medici, the crooked dealer who was the source for the Met’s krater in 1972. In February 1973, Robert Hecht, a better-connected dealer for whom Medici acted as middleman, offered the kylix, which he had acquired from Medici, to Met director Thomas Hoving.
As Silver reports, although Hoving and his antiquities curator, Dietrich von Bothmer, were “mightily tempted” to buy the chalice, the timing was awkward because the museum was coming in for a firestorm of criticism over the Euphronios krater’s murky provenance. The price of the kylix was $70,000—not bad considering that the krater had cost $1 million. Nonetheless, Hoving ended the meeting by telling Hecht to “get the hell out of here.”
With that, the kylix went out of circulation for a while, until 1979, when Hecht sold it to Texas oilman Bunker Hunt, via Bruce McNall, a former coin dealer who had encouraged Hunt to collect antiquities. By now the price had risen to about $700,000. In 1990 Hunt put the kylix on the block at Sotheby’s New York, and this time it went to Medici, who paid $742,500 to possess the cup he had helped spirit away from the tomb it was buried in. He had felt cut out of the big profit Hecht made a decade earlier, and now he hoped to get his chance to sell it for a huge profit.
He would never get it. In 1998 Italian and Swiss law enforcement authorities raided Medici’s warehouse, and when a policeman found the kylix and picked it up by its handles instead of holding it from bottom, it gave way and smashed into pieces on the floor. Today the fragments lie in a storeroom in the Villa Giulia museum in Rome, in legal limbo. Despite the severity of the injury, experts say the kylix could be reassembled and exhibited. But will it? This “lost chalice” seems to be under an ancient Etruscan curse.