In 1972, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art paid a record-smashing $1 million for an ancient Greek vase known as the Euphronios Krater. It was worth every penny. The krater—a 12-gallon pot for mixing wine and water—was one of only two dozen surviving examples by the great painter Euphronios, and it even had his signature. Thomas Hoving, then the Met's director, was so smitten by its classic beauty he called it "positively the finest work of art I've ever seen." (Take that, Michelangelo.) But the 2,500-year-old krater did have one major flaw. It was stolen—dug up by looters from an Etruscan tomb near Rome and smuggled out of Italy just months before it was sold, an inconvenient truth the Met finally copped to last year. When the museum debuts its lavish new Greek and Roman galleries next month, its most notable antiquity will be left in a side gallery. Next year the Met is sending it back to Italy for good.
The true provenance of the krater wasn't exactly a surprise. The American dealer who sold it to the Met, Robert Hecht, said he got it from a guy in Beirut who'd kept it in a shoe box in a closet. Hoving suspected that story was dubious, but Hecht provided documentation. Still, reporters who tried to nail down the krater's past took to calling it "the hot pot." For years, antiquities buyers operated on a "don't ask, don't tell" standard. In fact, the Met is returning 20 other pieces with checkered pasts, and museums from Boston to Los Angeles are negotiating with Italy over objects in their collections. Other countries, including Greece, Egypt and Peru, are also fighting for the restitution of art. Disputes about ancient treasures are nothing new—the Greeks have been trying to take back the Elgin Marbles from Britain for almost 200 years. But the pursuit of such artworks has ignited a complex debate over cultural patrimony. No sooner had Philippe de Montebello, the Met's director, signed away the Euphronios Krater than he launched into a series of passionate speeches: why, he asked, should objects from ancient civilizations go back to modern nations that didn't exist when the art was created? Yes, the law "must be obeyed," he said, but antiquities "are the patrimony of all mankind." In other words, who really owns the past?
Of course, that depends on whom you ask. Thanks to recent international pacts that condemn the smuggling of artifacts, there's been an ethics shift that seems to favor the claims from countries of origin. Adding to the pressure is genuine alarm over the brutal plunder of archeological sites—in Italy, China, Turkey, Mexico, Iraq and elsewhere—by traffickers eager to supply the soaring black market. "When an object appears on the art market, it is stripped of its historical context," says scholar Brian Rose, president of the Archeological Institute of America. "It is, in a sense, the murder of history." The archeologists maintain that it's the market that must change: museums should refuse antiquities without a clear provenance back to 1970. "That," says Rose, "is our line in the sand."
But art-museum directors are fighting the new Zeitgeist. Not that they haven't tightened their collecting standards—they have. Not that they don't deplore art theft and the trashing of ancient sites—they do. But they don't believe that the acquisition of antiquities is intrinsically unethical. And they defend the importance of their mission: to conserve a vast range of artworks and display them to a broad audience. "These 'retentionist' laws are really arguments against the encyclopedic, universal museum," says James Cuno, director of the Art Institute of Chicago. "It's important to give the public access to our common legacy and to encourage the understanding of other cultures." And, as de Montebello points out, ancient art has always been on the move, as either the spoils of war—the treasures from Napoleon's conquest of Egypt that fill the Louvre, for example—or from trade. How do you think the Greek Euphronios Krater wound up in that tomb near Rome? A century ago American and European museums filled their galleries via "partage"—the legitimate divvying up of finds, after an excavation, between Western archeologists and the host territory.
But the place with the most notorious problem now is not an old museum but a new one, the Getty in Los Angeles, which had started buying antiquities voraciously in the 1970s. Its most stunning artwork, a delicately luminous gold funerary wreath from ancient Greece, bought in 1993 for $1.15 million, is an example. The antiquities curator, Marion True, at first refused the wreath, according to the Los Angeles Times, writing in a letter to a dealer that it was "too dangerous for us to be involved with." But something obviously changed her mind—within a year the Getty bought it. It did indeed turn out to have been looted, and last month the Getty's director flew to Athens to sign a deal to hand it over.
Italy, too, has taken a close look at the Getty's acquisitions. After police raided a dealer's warehouse crammed with photos of looted objects, many still caked with dirt, Italian officials traced some pieces to the Getty, as well as to other American collections. They also shocked the museum community here by charging True with conspiracy to smuggle antiquities. Her codefendant: none other than Robert Hecht, the man who sold the Euphronios Krater to the Met. Both True and Hecht deny the charges. Their trial in Rome began more than a year ago and threatens to last longer than the reign of Caesar Augustus.
Last spring Getty director Michael Brand began negotiating with the Italians over 52 objects they claimed were stolen. By autumn the museum had agreed to return 26 artworks right away and keep talking about the rest. But in November, Brand announced the talks had stalled. The deal-breaker: a rare bronze statue of a youth, originally found in international waters—and it's Greek. The story of the "Statue of a Victorious Youth" shows just how tricky the notion of patrimony can be. Fishermen from Fano, Italy, hauled it up in their nets off the coast of Yugoslavia in 1964. They brought it back to Fano—and sold it. The Italian courts twice cleared the buyers of violating patrimony laws, and around 1970—no one seems to know the exact date—the statue was shipped to Brazil, then to England and finally wound up in Germany, where a dealer in Munich offered it to old J. Paul Getty himself. Last November, according to Brand, the Italians suddenly refused to negotiate further unless they were guaranteed the bronze youth, despite the rulings of their own courts. "Source countries need to be very responsible in what they claim," says Brand. "The bronze is a claim without any merit."
Yet the battle the Italians are waging is about more than just about ownership. It's also about national pride, politics and moral suasion, and to those ends they've brilliantly courted the press. Francesco Rutelli, the ambitious minister of Culture, used the op-ed page of The Wall Street Journal to present his side of why the Getty talks stalled. And Italian officials have so generously shared information with journalists that several U.S. art museums—including those in Cleveland, Princeton and Minneapolis—first learned that Italy was targeting pieces in their collections because they got calls from American reporters.
Museum directors, quietly wrestling with the embarrassment of illicit antiquities in their display cases, are making sure that both potential acquisitions and suspicious artwork already in their collections are vetted. Some museums have managed to fend off claims. Last year an Egyptian official declared that a rare, colorful 3,200-year-old burial mask in the St. Louis Museum of Art had been swiped from an Egyptian warehouse. Museum director Brent Benjamin says his staff thoroughly researched the mask with scholars, with Interpol and even with the head of the Cairo Museum before buying it in 1998. "We've said from the start, if there's sufficient documentation it was stolen, there's no question we will return it," says Benjamin. "But the burden of proof is on him." Still, such claims will probably only increase. China recently asked the U.S. State Department to ban the import of all Chinese artifacts made before 1925 (the request is on hold). Peru threatened to sue the Peabody Museum at Yale University for a huge trove from Machu Picchu, which was shipped out in 1912 by explorer Hiram Bingham, who had found the ancient Incan city. Peru maintains the artifacts weren't the spoils of partage but, ironically, a short-term loan.
Which is not to say people in the art world aren't digging for new solutions. Some museum directors hope Italy could be encouraged to establish a legal market, where the government grants export licenses for antiquities not deemed "national treasures"—Japan has such a system. Others believe the best hope is to expand the program of loans of precious artworks—that's one way Italians have dangled carrots in their current negotiations with U.S. museums. Still others, like de Montebello, believe the pendulum, eventually, will swing back to a more fluid legal art market. And just think how the power of the Internet can help track down provenances.
But for now, museum acquisitions of antiquities have dwindled to a trickle. Still, the showcases are hardly bare: in New York, workers are busy installing thousands of stunning examples of such artwork in the Met's new sun-splashed galleries. Many of the friezes, busts, pots and jewelry haven't been out of the Met's storerooms since practically the sack of Rome. This is one of the greatest collections of antiquities in the world—and it's thrilling to realize that the 4 million visitors to the Met each year will have a chance to appreciate this art anew. And isn't that the most powerful argument of all?