An art-world riddle, resolved

For decades, the Greco-Roman vase was on display at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it was admired for its elegant proportions and decorated façade.

But after evidence emerged that the vase had been illegally excavated from an ancient gravesite in southern Italy, the museum handed the vessel over to the office of Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance — the first step in the vase’s journey home.

The U.S. State Department has agreements with 16 countries that prohibit the import of their stolen cultural property into the United States. Under U.S. customs law, agents are authorized to seize stolen artifacts that have been trafficked to the U.S. In 2016, U.S. customs agents returned hundreds of objects to their countries of origin.

The painted terra-cotta vase formerly on view at the Met is known as the “Python krater.” (A krater is a mixing bowl used to dilute wine with water; Python was a Greek artist regarded as one of the greatest vase painters of his era.)

Dating from 360–350 B.C.E., the vase depicts Dionysus — the Greek god of the grape harvest — riding in a cart pulled by a satyr. According to the New York Times, the museum bought the vase at auction for just under $100,000 in 1989, and at the time there were no suspicions about its provenance.

But questions were raised when forensic archaeologist Christos Tsirogiannis published an article presenting likely evidence that the vase had been looted. He matched the vessel to photos of a 2,300-year-old vase from the records of an art dealer who had been convicted of smuggling stolen treasures.

Once museum officials became aware of Tsirogiannis’ concerns, the Met “worked diligently to ensure a just resolution of this matter,” Met spokesman Kenneth Weine said. The Met, he added, “began reaching out to the Italian ministry of culture, which is in keeping with prior agreements we have with the Italian government.”

For his part, Tsirogiannis shared his findings with a New York police squad specializing in art-theft cases. Those investigators agreed that the vase had almost certainly been smuggled out of Italy in the 1970s.

Vance, the district attorney, had his office contact the Met, which immediately took the piece off display and delivered it to prosecutors. They began the arrangements for the precious vase to return to Italy, where it belongs.