Saturday, December 19, 2009

Book Review: "The Lost Chalice"

Vernon Silver's The Lost Chalice (William Morrow, 2009) is a riveting account of the longstanding saga of the famous Euphronios Krater. Following up the excellent 2006 book by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini, The Medici Conspiracy (reviewed here) Silver extends that account by bringing the krater back to Italy (it was returned to Italy in January 2008) and by interviewing not only convicted smuggler/dealer Giacomo Medici himself, but also several others closely involved in the case (including the only surviving member of the tomb-robbing party who excavated the krater in 1971).

Silver's interest extend beyond the krater, though, and encompass other Euphronios works, including a kylix (or chalice) which was probably looted from the same area as the krater at around the same time. Silver tracks this piece, and several others, through the sordid underbelly of the illicit antiquities trade as they made their way around the globe, in and out of Swiss warehouses, the auction houses of London, the museums of America, and private collections hither and yon.

This is the sort of book I love: a non-fiction subject which reads like a thriller. Silver's talked to all the people he should have, and worked his way through innumerable court filings and documents - he's done his homework, and it shows. It's books like this, as well as the continued legal pressure on collectors (both private and institutional) and dealers which will eventually put an end to the trade in looted artifacts. Of course, until then, the great stories they provide will offer Silver and others the chance to write good books like this one.

After I finished the book this afternoon I started poking around on the author's website and on his blog noticed that two of the major characters in the book (former head of the Met Thomas Hoving and former Met curator Dietrich von Bothmer, who together arranged the 1972 purchase of the krater by the museum) both died recently (Bothmer in October, Hoving just last week). And it'll be interesting to see where the case continues to meander: former Getty curator Marion True and dealer Robert Hecht are still on trial on charges related to the purchase of looted antiquities, and other related investigations are still underway, even after decades. As recently as 2 December, a Corinthian column krater believed to have been handled by Medici was returned to Italy after being seized by authorities in New York (it was scheduled for auction at Christie's). The saga continues.

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