The Kylix Marvel: Why Experts Distrust the Story of an Ancient Cup’s Rebirth
The first shards of pottery arrived at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1978, a purchase from a Swiss dealer. A second handful was bought from a Los Angeles gallery a year later.
These ceramic tidbits — part of the hodgepodge of ancient fragments that the museum routinely collected — bore the unmistakable designs of ancient Greek pottery. A Met expert thought they were a small part of a significant artifact, a drinking cup known as a kylix.
In dribs and drabs over the next 16 years, a remarkable pattern emerged — a Humpty Dumpty story with a happier ending. As hundreds of disparate shards of pottery arrived at the museum — some as purchases, some as gifts — dozens turned out to be parts of the same Greek kylix from roughly 490 B.C.
With great patience and puzzle-solving, the Met reconstructed the cup and decided it had been created by two notables of ancient ceramics: Hieron, the potter, and Makron, the painter.
One can imagine the excitement when the last fragment arrived in 1994. A terra-cotta kylix, created in Athens 2,500 years earlier, had been restored to life. The cup, 13 inches in diameter and depicting a man and a woman reclining on a couch, went on display five years later: an icon of ancient beauty as well as a testament to modern scholarship and technical expertise.
But law enforcement officials and a dozen archaeologists and art historians said in interviews that they believe that other, less serendipitous forces may also have been at work. They suggest that the individual shards of the kylix, which had likely been found together, were knowingly dispersed among dealers who sold them separately to the Met, their small size deflecting the kind of attention a complete cup would have drawn.
In September, the Manhattan district attorney’s office seized the kylix, now valued at more than $1 million, and declared it the product of looting. The office cited as evidence old Polaroids of some of the fragments that had been taken prior to their arrival at the Met. The photos had been found in the Geneva offices of Giacomo Medici, an accused Italian antiquities trafficker.
Investigators were struck by the fact that the fragments from a single cup — shards that had ostensibly lain together in the ground for centuries — ended up in the hands of different dealers or collectors who eventually sold or donated them to the Met.
Three of them were later associated with the sale of looted antiquities.
A fourth, it turned out, was Dietrich von Bothmer, who for decades served as chief curator of Greek and Roman artifacts at the Met. After he purchased the other fragments for the museum, von Bothmer surprisingly found shards in his own private collection that nearly completed the piece, including the final fragment he gave to the Met in 1994.
Nowhere, according to the Met’s records, did he or any of the others indicate where they had gotten the fragments.
David Gill, an archaeologist and fellow with the Centre for Heritage at the University of Kent in England, is among the experts who believe the Makron kylix was illicitly excavated just before pieces of it began showing up at the museum. He views it as another example of a long employed, but seldom discussed, practice of using fragments to market illicit antiquities because intact artifacts would draw too much attention.
“If the Met had bought this complete cup attributed to Makron, there would have been jumping up and down,” Gill said. “Instead, it had bought a fragment, and it loses the impact.”
“It looks,” he continued, “as if they are just putting a jigsaw puzzle together.”
Many experts believe the smuggling of illicit fragments became a black market routine. Some experts go further, suggesting that thieves at times smashed intact antiquities, destroying markers of history that had survived for millenniums.
Matthew Bogdanos, the prosecutor with the Manhattan district attorney’s office who leads the Antiquities Trafficking Unit that seized the Met’s kylix, said the breaks in fragments on some cups appear to have been made strategically so that figures on the pottery remain intact.
“It does make you wonder how many items they destroyed before they got good at it,” he said.
Other experts, though, say looters do not have the patience to undertake a scheme that can take a decade or more to unfold. And even cumulatively, they argue, fragments from a cup would not nearly match the price of an intact artifact.
“They are worth much more unbroken!” said J. Michael Padgett, the former curator of ancient art at the Princeton University Art Museum.
Ancient artifacts, he said, are reconstructed, not through the intrigue of conspirators, but because expert, methodical researchers, with many contacts and special databases, are capable of making matches from a universe of orphaned shards.
But those who embrace the fragment theory suggest that there is little value to an intact vase if it can’t be successfully exported and that the prices of fragments soar if they are the last of the missing pieces.
“The first three fragments are not going to be of great value,” Bogdanos said. “Now more come on the market and the price of the fragments is driven up. The dealer says, ‘Hey, there are four more pieces!’ Now you want to pay more — I call it ‘incentivized buying.’”
‘Like Truffles Underground’
The Met’s kylix was created during the golden age of Greek pottery, a period from about 550 B.C. to 350 B.C., when painters depicted all manner of scenes from mythology, wars, sports and the erotic encounters of humans, satyrs and gods. The Greeks used the cups, made from the country’s iron-rich clay, at symposiums, the bawdy drinking parties that featured music, poetry and debate.
The kylix is thought to have traveled to Italy in trade with the Etruscans, whose civilization dominated central Italy in the centuries before the rise of the Roman republic.
Rich Etruscans coveted Attic pottery, which they most likely used for banquets, and also for daily life and as sanctuary offerings to a deity. Thousands of artifacts like the kylix were found in tombs, perhaps intended for use in the afterlife.
“The Etruscans were interested in the mythic stories depicted on many vases and also their role in drinking culture, as well as their beauty,” said Sheramy Bundrick, a professor of art history at the University of South Florida. “It gave them cachet.”
One early British collector, John Disney, explored an ancient Italian site in the 1820s and said that the remains of ancient vases were so plentiful they “seem to grow there like truffles underground.” Some artifacts had been reduced to shards found buried just yards below the surface; others were discovered intact, protected by the volcanic rock from which Etruscan tombs were often carved.
Over time, thousands of the vases have been reconstructed from fragments found alongside each other. What some experts are concerned about is those rarer instances when vases have been reconstructed from shards that scattered and then turned up in the hands of multiple dealers.
Michael Vickers, professor emeritus of archaeology at Oxford University and a former curator at its Ashmolean Museum, is among those experts who said the sharp, crisp edges of some fragments are evidence of fresh breaks that occurred in modern, not ancient, times. A piece of pottery that lay in the ground for 2,500 years would have more rounded, worn edges, he said.
Daniela Rizzo, an expert in illicit trafficking, said that while she agrees dealers have parceled out fragments from broken pottery in schemes intended to deflect attention, she does not think there is much intentional shattering of pottery by the thieves.
Rizzo, whose work over the past three decades helped Italy recover dozens of artifacts from foreign museums, said ancient vases break underground for many reasons. “The breakage is not voluntary, I’ve always rejected this hypothesis,” she said.
A Puzzle With 2,500-Year-Old Pieces
In 1981, von Bothmer began to reconstruct the kylix, using the initial fragments that the Met had purchased.
He had already established himself as one of the greatest connoisseurs of ancient Greek art. Born in Germany, he studied at Oxford under Sir John Beazley, the legendary Greek art scholar, and moved to the United States where he served in the Army in the South Pacific and received a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart for bravery.
He had run into a bit of rough seas in 1972 when he persuaded the Met to purchase another ancient Greek vase, the Euphronios krater, for $1 million, an astounding sum at the time, from Robert Hecht, a major dealer who the authorities accused several times of antiquities trafficking but who was never convicted.
Italian authorities almost immediately demanded it back, saying it had been looted only a year earlier from an Etruscan tomb, and there was feverish attention in the press on their complaint. (The Met ultimately returned the krater in 2008.)
But von Bothmer’s expert reputation only grew, in part because he was so accomplished at reassembling ancient vases from fragments with the help of conservators.
“It does require great knowledge, photographic memory and ability to understand, connoisseurship to identify and group them by author,” said Sean Hemingway, the current lead curator of Greek and Roman art at the Met.
In a 1982 film, von Bothmer explained the epiphanies that helped him match fragments he had seen in disparate locations. “You come to the almost instant recognition that what you have in front of you on a Saturday afternoon in Paris,” he said, “is bound to join a fragment perhaps not more than 2 ½ inches across in Oxford.”
Von Bothmer did not leave detailed records of the process he used in recreating the kylix. But photographs of the Met’s first reconstruction in 1981 show about two dozen fragments set against a modern white plaster bowl. Then and now conservators use a reversible nitrate adhesive, universal cement, so that any joins can be easily undone.
The Met’s current head of conservation, Lisa Pilosi, said that when remaking a cup, it’s important to first check to see if the fragments are stable enough to handle without flaking.
“If there is an image,” she said “that makes it easier, just like a jigsaw puzzle. If not, you just have to go by the edges.”
“It takes patience, someone who can see in three dimensions in their head,” she said, adding, “it’s not for someone who just needs instant gratification.”
In 1988, the next batch of fragments arrived at the Met, sold to the museum by the owner of a gallery in Switzerland. The following year, two more fragments that fit the cup came to the Met, this time as a gift from von Bothmer’s own extensive private collection.
Von Bothmer had become a voracious collector of ancient Greek artifacts, though some experts later discouraged curators from collecting privately in the same area of interest as their museum expertise, given the potential conflicts of interest.
“If donors know you are a collector, it opens the door to all kinds of situations where there could be rewards of the kind, ‘I give this to the museum and this to you,’” said Elizabeth Marlowe, an art historian and the director of the museum studies program at Colgate University in New York.
The Met, however, says collecting by its curators is permitted under its guidelines, as long as any prospective purchase is offered to the Met first.
Slowly, the cup was coming into focus as the fragments arrived. It was a so-called red-figure kylix, a style in which the reddish figures are set against darkened backgrounds and have finer facial details — innovations that introduced greater realism to Greek art. Von Bothmer had already attributed it to Makron, a painter celebrated in particular for his depiction of women and their garments.
On the interior of the cup, a bearded man and a woman in partial dress recline on a couch at a symposium, or drinking revel. The woman, perhaps a prostitute, is shown flicking dregs of wine from a cup at a target in a game the Greeks called kottabos. On the cup’s exterior, older men pursue younger ones. One youth holds a cock, a love gift. Another holds a sponge for oils and a strigil, an instrument for scraping oil and sweat from the body.
The names of three men — Hippodamas, Eukrates and Euryptolemos — are inscribed on the outside, each followed by the word “kalos,” which means “is handsome” or “is beautiful.”
In 1994, some 16 years after the first fragments arrived, a final singular shard was given to the Met, again a gift from von Bothmer. He left no record of where he had gotten it, but at that point he carried out the final reconstruction that completed the cup.
“Dietrich turned what was a bunch of fragments into something that was beautiful,” said Hemingway, the Met curator.
Coincidence, Connoisseurship or Conspiracy?
It is not clear how the dozens of fragments that were used to reconstruct the kylix came to be so widely dispersed. But it is clear, investigators said, that three of the dealers who sold those fragments to the Met would be linked to the illegal trafficking of antiquities.
And all of them had some kind of relationship with von Bothmer.
Fritz Bürki, who sold the Met the first fragments in 1978, was an expert in the reassembly of fractured artifacts. He had rebuilt the infamous Euphronios krater for Hecht, the dealer who sold it to von Bothmer and the Met. In 2001, Bürki admitted knowing that many artifacts he restored had been looted and that he occasionally acted as a frontman for Hecht in the sale of such artifacts, according to court records.
The second set of kylix fragments came from Summa Gallery, a Los Angeles dealership in which Hecht had partnered with Bruce McNall, a colorful U.S. businessman. McNall, a former part owner of the Los Angeles Kings hockey team who once owned a Canadian Football League team with the actor John Candy and Wayne Gretzky, said in an interview that he could not remember the kylix fragments.
But he acknowledged that Hecht often purchased items from Medici, the dealer who had Polaroids that showed parts of the kylix. The photographs were found during a 1995 raid on Medici’s Geneva storeroom that turned up a hoard of looted artifacts and thousands of photographs of items that the authorities view as stolen.
“To my knowledge, everything was coming from wrong sources back then,” McNall said. No one in the art world, he said, showed particular concern, including curators who he said thought they were preserving for public display items that might otherwise disappear into private collections.
In an interview, Medici said he could not recall the kylix and disputed the contention that the Polaroids constituted evidence that the depicted fragments had passed through his hands. He said he was frequently sent photographs by other dealers.
McNall, who unlike Hecht was never accused of antiquities trafficking, said he did not knowingly participate in any organized scheme to sell the kylix in pieces to the Met. But he agreed that dealers would parcel out fragments over time, in part to ensure that prices would escalate as collectors or museums closed in on completing an object.
“The last pieces are so valuable,” he said.
The last of the fragments sold to the Met came in a 1988 purchase from Frieda Tchacos, a dealer who gave the Met a fragment for a second cup in 1990 to honor von Bothmer. Tchacos was arrested by Italian authorities in Cyprus in 2002 on charges of trafficking in looted art. She received an 18-month suspended sentence for handling smuggled goods.
Investigators with the Manhattan district attorney’s office said that, based on a witness account, they believe Tchacos, who could not be reached for comment, had gotten her kylix fragments from Raffaele Monticelli, a man U.S. and Italian authorities identified as a major tomb raider before his death last year.
Some of the dealers who sold fragments to the Met had not been charged with any crimes related to antiquities when their fragments came to the museum. But Bogdanos said an expert like von Bothmer “could not have not known that these objects were looted.”
In the late 1970s, concern in the museum world over looted objects did not burn as brightly as it does today. By the 1990s, though, when von Bothmer donated his last fragment to the reconstruction, museums had embraced stricter guidelines that frowned on the acquisition of ancient objects that lacked a back story.
“From the very first fragment, it was the responsibility of the Met to verify that they are not putting themselves in trouble,” especially after the outcry over the Euphronios krater, said Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist and head of illicit antiquities research at the Ionian University in Greece. “Instead, in this case they collected all these fragments out of thin air with a provenance that had no details” beyond the names of the immediate suppliers.
Von Bothmer, who died in 2009, had long denied being lax in his acquisition standards or cavalier in accepting the krater.
“A dog shouldn’t be treated the way they treated me,” he said in an interview in 1972.
In a statement, the Met said: “All acquisitions met the Museum’s standards at that time. As laws and guidelines on collecting have changed over time, so have The Met’s policies and procedures.”
The experts who dispute the theory that fragments are used to aid smuggling argue that shards could easily become dispersed at an archaeological dig if someone discovered a key shard first, paying less attention to other pieces that might have been farther away, and leaving them in the ground for others to find later in second or third digs.
Dealers, these experts said, are typically rivals unlikely to conspire with competitors, but capable of letting fragments become separated in the tumult of a busy workshop.
The seeming serendipity of their coming together in a museum can be explained by the strength of von Bothmer’s expertise, Padgett, the former Princeton curator, said.
“Bothmer had a good eye,” said Padgett, who called him “a man of deep principles.”
But Marlowe, the art historian from Colgate, said the remarkable reunification of long lost fragments suggested other forces may have been at work.
“There are tens of thousands of fragments out there,” she said. “I don’t care how big your contact book is, there is no way you are going to connect the dots unless you already have advance knowledge and notification to look out for, say, some guy’s left arm.”
At his death, von Bothmer bequeathed the Met some 16,000 fragments, some of which are on display today in one of the two galleries named for him at the museum.
Occupying a central spot in one of the galleries is a second cup by Makron and Hieron that von Bothmer also put together from fragments.
It, too, is remarkable, not just because of its craftwork or the careful way it was reconstructed. Like the kylix just returned to Italy, the pieces for this second cup came to the Met over time from the very same group as the first: Bürki, Tchacos, McNall’s gallery and von Bothmer himself, with an additional shard donated by Elizabeth Hecht, the tainted dealer’s wife.
Bogdanos said he was aware of the second cup, describing it as an artifact of interest but not one currently part of an investigation.
It is hard, though, he said, to embrace the notion that some museum curators were just blessed when it came to finding the pieces they needed.
“Of all of the millions upon millions of fragments in the world, of all of the thousands of museums, of all the gin joints in the world, all the fragments came into my place?” he said. “And that’s a coincidence?”
Additional reporting from Italy by Elisabetta Povoledo. Susan Beachy contributed research.