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The Met, Ending 30-Year Stance, Is Set to Yield Prized Vase to Italy
The New York Times 02/02/2006

Reversing a position it has held for more than 30 years, the Metropolitan Museum of Art said yesterday that it would relinquish ownership of a 2,500-year-old Greek vase, considered one of the world's finest, to Italy. The Italians have long contended that the vase was stolen from an Etruscan tomb near Rome and smuggled from the country.
In documents delivered yesterday in Rome by the Met's lawyers after weeks of negotiations, the museum pledged to return the vase, known as the Euphronios krater; 15 pieces of Hellenistic silver; and four other vessels from the Classical era to Italy in exchange for long-term loans of other prized antiquities. Under the proposal, the Met would accept no liability for acquiring objects determined to have been looted, maintaining that it bought them in good faith.
If the Met and Italy reach a final accord, it could present a watershed moment for American museums facing newly aggressive claims from source countries for the return of cultural property. Still, questions remain about the timetable for acting on any agreement, and about whether such a pact will bring a fundamental change in the Met's collecting practices.
The Met did not specify, for example, when the vase or the other objects would leave the museum. The Met has proposed to keep some objects on long-term loan from the Italians and to return others. Under the proposal, half the silver collection could be returned while the other half remains at the Met, with an exchange every four years.
Philippe de Montebello, the museum's director, said that return dates for the objects would be negotiated in the coming weeks but that he expected Italy to accept the basics of the proposal, which was approved last month by the Met's board. "We're wordsmithing," he said. "That's the stage at where we are."
"Basically things are on the way to a resolution," he said.
Italian officials welcomed the Met's overture, which generally followed a proposal Italy sent to the museum last month. But the officials said significant differences were still to be ironed out when the parties meet next, on Feb. 14 and 15 in Rome.
It is unclear, for example, whether objects on loan to the Met from the collection of a trustee, Shelby White, and her late husband, Leon Levy some of which have also come under Italian scrutiny will be subject to claims. The Levy-White collection is expected to play a central role in the opening of the Met's expanded Roman galleries next year.
According to Italian officials, the Met's proposal excluded an Italian demand that the museum turn over information about antiquities of Italian origin lent to the museum by private collectors.
Maurizio Fiorilli, a lawyer for the Italian Culture Ministry, said that such a provision was "essential to the accord" because it addressed the museum's current activities as well as past acquisitions. Cultural property experts said yesterday that they were eager to know whether the Met would adopt stricter policies about acquiring undocumented antiquities.
The massive krater, a vessel once used to mix wine and water, was painted by Euphronios, one of the most important Greek vase painters. The krater, painted in the red-figured style, depicts the Greek god Hermes directing Sleep and Death as they carry a son of Zeus for burial. It is now on view at the museum.
When the Met bought the krater in 1972 for more than $1 million from a dealer whose practices were already under scrutiny, its appearance stunned the art world and led to front-page headlines about its provenance. Italy almost immediately began an investigation, with help in the United States from the F.B.I.
Over the years, the case of its kind perhaps second only to the older dispute between Greece and Britain over the Elgin marbles has become emblematic of the ethical questions surrounding the acquisition of ancient art by major museums.
In recent years, the Italian government has begun pursuing such cases more aggressively. In 2002 it indicted Marion True, then the antiquities curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, on charges of trafficking in looted objects. Ms. True, who resigned last year, is now on trial concerning the Getty objects, along with Robert Hecht, the American dealer who sold the Met the Euphronios krater and later the Hellenistic silver, also considered some of the finest examples of their kind.
The Italians also began to focus on objects in the Met's collection that they suspected had been looted, issuing the Met subpoenas for information. In February 2005, the Met requested a meeting with Italian officials. In November, Mr. de Montebello met in Rome with Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's culture minister, and proposed the idea of some returns in exchange for loans of work of "equivalent beauty and importance."
But at the time, Mr. de Montebello insisted that the Met would not consider returning objects unless Italy provided "incontrovertible evidence" that they were illegally taken from the country. Italy countered that it was nearly impossible to prove forensically that ancient artifacts had been looted.
Yesterday, Mr. de Montebello conceded that the standard of evidence he had demanded was unrealistic. "I am not a lawyer, and the wording 'incontrovertible' that I used, it has been brought to my attention that even in a murder case it is not used," he said.
He added that evidence sent by the Italians in recent weeks had satisfied him that there was a "substantial or highly probable" chance the objects had been illegally removed. "If there's a preponderance of evidence that points that way, then obviously we take appropriate action," he said.
After foundering in the 1970's, Italy's efforts to repatriate the Euphronios krater were renewed in 1995, when Italian and Swiss investigators raided warehouses in Geneva belonging to Giacomo Medici, an Italian antiquities dealer who had over three decades become a leading supplier of top dealers and museums around the world.
The investigators found documents and photographs detailing what officials said was a vast international antiquities trafficking operation. In 2001, investigators also raided the Paris apartment of Mr. Hecht, who frequently did business with Mr. Medici.
In 2004, Mr. Medici was convicted of trafficking in looted antiquities, and several transactions involving the Met were detailed in the sentencing documents. (Mr. Medici is appealing his conviction.) Those transactions, together with other evidence that has emerged in Italy's case against Ms. True and Mr. Hecht, put growing pressure on the Met to abandon its longstanding position that Italy's grievances were without merit.
Italy has not made clear where all the Met objects would be put on display upon their return. But Malcolm Bell, a University of Virginia archaeologist and the director of the excavations at Morgantina, the ancient city in Sicily, has already begun making security preparations with Italian officials for the return of the silver to a museum near the site.
Mr. Bell and other archaeologists have concluded that the pieces form a single set looted from a third century B.C. house at the site. "I hope very much that when the silver set returns, it does so in its entirety," Mr. Bell said yesterday by telephone from Sicily, calling the Met's proposal a turning point.
He and others stressed the importance of reconnecting ancient objects to the settings in which they were used and found.
"The Euphronios krater was dug up from a tomb," said Giuseppe Proietti, a senior official in charge of cultural heritage for the Italian government. "Alone on exhibit it is aesthetically beautiful, but alongside other materials from a burial site it becomes something more. It's like reading just one page of a book. You will never experience the same pleasure derived from reading the entire novel."



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