The Tomb Robbers

On the trail of a looted chalice, Vernon Silver exposes the dark side of the antiquities trade, from tomb robbers in Italy to museum curators in New York and Los Angeles.

05.30.09 9:22 AM ET

For anyone who has ever stood under the halogen lights of a museum and wondered just where, exactly, an Etruscan artifact is from, Vernon Silver has the answer, which may involve tomb raiders, smugglers, unscrupulous art dealers, and willfully blind museum curators. A Rome-based correspondent for Bloomberg who is also an Oxford-trained archeologist, Silver, in his new book, The Lost Chalice, describes the seedy underworld of the antiquities trade in such vivid detail that one can almost smell the fresh earth of a pillaged archeological site.

The prosecution of Marion True put other curators on notice, and hundreds of illegal artifacts have been voluntarily returned to Italy

The unbridled looting of Italy’s buried treasures before 1970 is one of this country’s darkest cultural chapters. Thousands of valuable artifacts were fished from the soil and sold to art dealers, who passed them on to private collectors and major museums. A 1970 Unesco convention on cultural heritage exposed the illicit practice and established procedures for repatriating stolen goods. Countries trying to reclaim their antiquities from museums around the world have better luck with those acquired after the 1970 accord. Those acquired before the pact generally stay on the museum shelves.

Silver's book is not the first on this subject. Stealing History by Roger Atwood is a sweeping look at a global phenomenon from Peru to Iraq. Loot by Sharon Waxman focuses on the museums and art dealers. The Medici Conspiracy by Peter Watson is basically an Italian prosecutor’s dossier in narrative form. What sets The Lost Chalice apart is that Silver manages to make one 2,500-year-old missing artifact a central character by going far beyond its mere provenance. He uses a chalice signed by the Greek painter Euphronios to give a complex history lesson that begins with the death of Zeus’ son on a Trojan battlefield and ends in the kitchen of one of the last living tombaroli—tomb robbers—near Rome.

As Silver tracks the chalice from its earthy grave to Sotheby’s auction house to a black-market warehouse in Switzerland (spoiler alert: where it is dropped and destroyed during a police raid), he exposes an intricate network that connects middleman Giacomo Medici and art dealer Robert Hecht with museum curators including the Getty Museum’s Marion True and the Met’s former chief Thomas Hoving. All of them aided and abetted the pilfering of Italy’s cultural heritage. And major institutions such as Oxford University, which for decades authenticated artifacts in its thermo-luminescence labs for major museums, turned a blind eye to the obvious thefts. In the 1990s, the Italians finally started to care. Medici has since been convicted of smuggling and illegal trafficking of antiquities. Hecht and True have been on trial in Rome since 2005 for conspiracy to traffic looted artifacts.

As Silver chases the chalice, he intertwines the story of its larger twin—the Euphronios krater Hecht sold in 1972 for $1 million to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it was the centerpiece of its ancient collections. That piece was returned to Italy in 2007, undoubtedly as a direct result of True and Hecht’s trial. It had taken nearly two years of intense negotiations between Italy’s cultural police and the Met’s board to secure its repatriation. Yet when the Italian authorities unveiled it at the Ministry of Culture, it was nearly knocked off its pedestal by a brass stand that holds the velvet rope.

The prosecution of Marion True put other curators on notice, and hundreds of illegal artifacts have been voluntarily returned to Italy from American museums, including many from the Getty that figure in the case against True. “What the Italian trials have done is cut off the demand at the top of the food chain," Silver says. "The big museums, for the most part, won't touch objects of questionable origin. That has a trickle-down effect on the collectors.”

But "the illicit digging is still going on," he adds, and "if there's still digging, that means there are still buyers. What the auction data reflect is that the crackdown might not be driving the trade underground as much as it's reshaping the pricing in the market. Objects with clear, clean histories get higher prices, while those with shadowy provenance sell at a relative discount."

Silver’s book humanizes Italy’s tomb raiders. He describes sitting in the kitchen of Francesco Bartocci, the last living tombarolo from the glory days before museums cared about provenance, listening to details of the very dig that turned up the two Euphronios chalices. Bartocci, who made just under $9,000 on the find, even takes Silver to the site in Greppe Sant’Angelo in Cerveteri. He has no regrets about the theft, and tells Silver “it doesn’t bother me that we didn’t make a lot of money. We made a great discovery.”

Without the tombaroli, many of these artifacts would never been found at all. But digging them up for the black market destroys their archeological context, without which any artifact’s story is incomplete. “Many people share the blame, from the tomb robbers to the smugglers and dealers to the museum directors who spend tax-exempt dollars on art whose discovery has led to the loss of knowledge about our past,” Silver writes. Now, at least for one lost chalice, part of that history has been told.

Barbie Nadeau has reported from Italy for Newsweek Magazine since 1997. She also writes for CNN Traveller, Budget Travel Magazine and Frommer's.