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The Looting of Italy Volume 51 Number 3, May/June 1998
by Andrew L. Slayman

The Case of the Golden Phiale

[image] Gold phiale or libation bowl was seized by U.S. Customs after being imported illegally from Italy. (Photograph © 1997 Ira Block) [LARGER IMAGE]

Sometime between 1976 and 1980, a fourth-century B.C. gold phiale (libation bowl), decorated with acorns, beechnuts, and bees, surfaced in the collection of a Sicilian named Vincenzo Pappalardo. In 1980, Pappalardo traded it to a Sicilian coin dealer named Vincenzo Cammarata for artworks worth $20,000. In 1991, Cammarata traded it to an expatriate Hungarian coin dealer named William Veres for artworks worth $90,000. Through a New York antiquities dealer named Robert Haber, Veres sold it to an American multimillionaire named Michael Steinhardt--the purchase price, $1.2 million. Sometime between 1991 and 1995, the Italian authorities discovered the transaction, which violated an Italian law regulating the exportation of antiquities. In 1995 they asked the U.S. for help getting the phiale back, and the Customs Service seized it. In November 1997, a federal judge ruled that it be returned to Italy, but Steinhardt is appealing and it will stay at the Customhouse until the lawsuit is resolved. Several museum associations have filed a brief supporting Steinhardt's position, while the Archaeological Institute of America has filed one supporting the government's position.

The phiale has a near twin in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was purchased in 1962 from the well-known antiquities dealer Robert E. Hecht, Jr.

* For more photographs of the phiale and updates on the lawsuit, see The Phiale of Achyris.

The Morgantina Hoard

Fifteen silver vessels at the Metropolitan Museum of Art may have been looted from the site of Morgantina, Sicily. Archaeologist Malcolm Bell, who directs American excavations at Morgantina, gives his account of the hoard's discovery and the subsequent investigation.

A recent article in the Boston Globe named the dealer who had sold the Morgantina hoard to the Metropolitan as Robert E. Hecht, Jr.--the same person who had sold them the gold phiale in 1962 and the famous Euphronios krater in 1972. The article also named the purchase price as $2.74 million and said that Italian authorities had interviewed the looters who had found the treasure.

Italy Fights Back

[image] Officers of the Guardia di Finanza, the police force of the Italian Ministry of Finance, seize a stash of artifacts near Rome. (Photos courtesy Guardia di Finanza) [LARGER IMAGE]

According to Italian law, all antiquities are the property of the government and may not be privately owned or exported. Nonetheless, rings of tombaroli (grave robbers) and antiquities smugglers flourish. Italian authorities are fighting this plague with aggressive enforcement, both at home and abroad. In 1996, Swiss police working with the Carabinieri, Italy's national police force, raided four bonded warehouses in Geneva containing 10,000 artifacts smuggled from Italy and valued at about $35 million--one of the largest antiquities seizures ever. In the past year and a half, the United States has returned to Italy a Roman torso of Artemis, a set of Etruscan pottery, and two stone capitals.

In many cases, however, it is impossible to prove that artifacts come from a particular country. The Cultural Property Implementation Act (by which the U.S. ratified the 1970 UNESCO convention) authorizes the federal government to ban the importation of entire categories of archaeological material, relieving the source country of the burden of proving that each artifact was excavated and exported illegally. Italy expects to be ready with its request for such a ban later this year. The Italian government could do more, allowing longer-term loans of artifacts to museums abroad; museums, for their part, should refrain from acquiring unprovenienced antiquities. Archaeologists could cultivate better relations with locals in areas where they excavate, encouraging them not to collaborate with looters.

* For 68 pictures of artifacts seized in Geneva, see "Geneva Seizure."
* Full text of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property
* Full text of the 1983 Convention on Cultural Property Implementation Act

Tales of a Tombarolo

Contributing editor Giovanni Lattanzi interviews a tombarolo (grave robber) who lives near the Etruscan ruins of Cerveteri, west of Rome.

Andrew L. Slayman is an Associate Editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.

© 1998 by the Archaeological Institute of America