Minneapolis museum to return looted vase to Italy

The Minneapolis Institute of Art (MIA) has agreed to return a 5th century B.C. red-figure volute krater (a vessel used to mix water and wine) that was part of Giacomo Medici’s hoard of looted antiquities to Italy. The museum purchased it from antiquities dealer/high society fence Robin Symes in 1983.

According to the museum website, the krater is probably the work of the Methyse Painter and depicts a Dionysian parade which stars a child satyr riding on the shoulders of a maenad. This is the only known vase painting of a child satyr getting a piggy back ride from a maenad. There are satyrs carrying child satyrs, women holding human babies, but no other women carrying child satyrs.

That unique depiction is key to the repatriation saga. When in 1995 the Italian art police raided a Geneva Freeport warehouse that antiquities dealer/fence Giacomo Medici (later sentenced to 10 years for antiquities theft) had stuffed full of looted artifacts, they also found a cache of 10,000 Polaroid pictures of newly excavated, unrestored ancient artifacts Medici had already sold.

That massive score of photographs has been the underpinning of many of the recent legal and diplomatic avenues Italy has pursued to reclaim looted antiquities from U.S. museums. Among the 10,000 was a picture of a volute krater depicting a Dionysian parade with a child satyr riding on the shoulders of a maenad. The vessel in the picture still bore the mud and salt encrustations from its fresh excavation.

In 2005, Italian authorities published a list of artifacts in eight major US museums that they had reason to believe had been illegally excavated, exported and sold. Among them was the child satyr krater at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The Italian police believe the vase was probably looted from Rutigliano, a town in the Puglia region (the heel of the boot) that was once colonized by Greece and is a mother lode of Greek vases because they were so prized they were often buried with their owners.

The museum of course claimed that it had bought the artifact “in good faith” (they always say that) and that according to their information (ie, the fictional ownership history Symes invented so the buyer could later claim to have purchased the stolen object “in good faith”), the vase had been in private collections in Switzerland (Canadian girlfriend alert!) for 15 years prior to the 1983 sale, pushing its fake provenance back two years before the 1970 cutoff established by the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

According to Kaywin Feldman, director and president of the MIA, in the wake of Italy’s allegations the museum launched an investigation on the provenance of the volute krater. The investigation somehow fell through the cracks after some staff changes, until Feldman entirely on her own “out of curiosity” contacted the Italian culture ministry last year to pursue the case.

That conversation led to an exchange of information which eventually determined the MIA’s krater had likely been illegally excavated. The MIA’s board of directors voted in March to deaccession the object and return it to the Italian government. The Italian government for its part has stated that it is thankful for the return of the krater.

The Italian government is unfailingly flattering to the museums they bust once they’ve secured a return, even when they don’t really deserve it. The six-year delay between the Italian claim and the repatriation decision was ludicrous. That Medici Polaroid is as close to undeniable evidence that vase was looted as it gets. Polaroid didn’t even make the camera model that took the picture until 1972, so there was no way that Swiss collection cover story could be remotely possible.

There is no firm date for the return of the krater. Talks are ongoing. Meanwhile, it will remain at the Minneapolis Institute of Art for at least another month, probably more, and they’ve added a blurb about the investigation to the display.