New York’s Met Returns Looted Morgantina Treasure to Italy

It’s not often that stories of looting have a happy ending, but at the weekend a collection of illegally excavated silverware from the third century BC went on display for the first time back in their home-country of Italy. The treasure of Morgantina, as the collection is known, has been returned to Rome by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it has been housed since 1982.

How the pieces got to the Met is a dramatic and nebulous story of illegal antiquities smuggling and dodgy dealing. American antiquities dealer Robert Hecht sold the pieces to the Met in two batches in 1981 and 1982 for a total sum of $2.7 million. He is now on trial in Rome for his part in the scandal. In other cases related to looted antiquities, Marion True, former curator of the Getty museum in California, is also defending charges brought by the Italian government of conspiracy in trafficking, while Italian art dealer Giacomo Medici has been sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in trafficking.

Morgantina’s Treasure and Destruction

The Morgantina collection consists of 16 pieces of intricately-worked silver objects, some gilded, many of which would have been used at the banquet table. They include two large bowls for mixing wine, honey and spices, three drinking bowls with embossed and gilded patterns inside, a two-handled silver cup for drinking, a small silver altar, a pair of silver horns that may have been attached to a helmet, a ladle and small boxes with beautiful bas-relief lids depicting a woman and a child.

The items weren’t all made by the same artist, which suggests they had been collected over time. They may have been hidden from plunderers during one of the periods of chaos at Morgantina.

Although today there is little to see at the site, Morgantina was once a bustling and powerful town in Sicily’s interior. Near Aidone, 5km east of Piazza Armerina (home to the stunning mosaics of Villa Romana del Casale), there is also evidence of several plush Classical villas at Morgantina. It was conquered by the Romans in 263 BC and definitively came under Roman rule in 211 BC. It was also involved in Sicily’s two slave rebellions during the second century BC, but by the first century BC, nothing the town had been completely destroyed and nothing was left of it.

Archaeologists who later excavated at the site say that a 100 lira coin from 1978 was found at the scene, suggesting the looting took place at the end of the 70s or early 80s.

An agreement between the Met and Italy’s Ministry for Heritage in 2006 has meant that the ancient silverware is now on its way back to Sicily (with a short stop-over in Rome), where it will go on display in Palermo from 4 June.

But is this really a story with a happy ending? There are two sides to the argument. Some argue that justice has now been done (better late than never) and that historical artefacts should be displayed in or near to the context in which they were found. The other side of the coin is that Italy has possibly the highest density of Classical heritage on the planet, so is it possible that a wonderful collection of silverware from ancient Sicily may not have the attention or impact that it would get if it was displayed abroad?

The Case of the Euphronios Krater

Italy is pushing hard for many objects to be repatriated and the Morgantina treasure is just the latest in a flurry of antiquities that are making their way back to Italy having been illegally exported and sold to high-profile museums in the 1970s and 80s. The Euphronios krater was repatriated from the Met in 2008, while the Venus of Morgantina is due to be sent back to Italy from the Getty museum soon.

The Euphronios krater, a 515 BC painted vase by Greek artist Euphronios looted from an Etruscan tomb in Cerveteri, north of Rome, in the early 1970s caused some debate when it was returned in 2008. Like the Morgantina silverware, this vase also passed through the hands of Robert Hecht and was sold to the Met in 1972. It is now on display at Villa Giulia, the national Etruscan museum in Rome.

But Michael Kimmelman, in the New York Times, argues that while the krater was the star piece in the Met’s collection of ancient vases, at Villa Giulia it is overshadowed. While the Met has visitor numbers of around 5.2 million per year, I suspect Villa Giulia’s visitor figures are much lower, although those visitors may be there because they are specifically interested in the Etruscans and no doubt really appreciate being able to see such an important vase in the context of an Etruscan collection.

The director of Villa Giulia, Anna Maria Moretti, told La Repubblica that, on the contrary, the Euphronios vase is on display in one of the museum’s central rooms near to the famous Etruscan statue Apollo from Veio. Far from being overshadowed, it is now the primary exhibit in a museum dedicated to Etruscan culture and art, in the heart of Rome (so accessible to the millions of tourists who visit each year) and also not more than about 50km from the tomb that was originally robbed by the tombaroli 40 years ago.

Next Stop Palermo

The final destination of the Morgantina treasure is Palermo’s Archaeological Museum of Antonino Salinas where it’s due to go on display from 4 June 2010. It may not have the grand surroundings of New York’s Met, but it will now be housed on the island where it was illegally dug up and the Italian authorities feel as though justice has been done.

In the meantime, it will be on display at Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome until 23rd May. Click here for details of prices and opening times.