America Oggi/ Oggi7
3 Oct 2004

Police Intervention/ Grab the Archaeological
Finds and Flee... To the Met

by: Charles Vincent Sabba Jr.

The Sicilian branch of the Italian Ministry of Culture has cut all ties with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York over a cache of ancient Greek silver that is believed to have been illicitly excavated and smuggled out of Sicily. Works from Sicily will no longer be loned to the Manhattan Museum that is believed to have many other treasures, which like the silver horde, have a dubious provenance, and have been looted from Aidone, the site of ancient Morgantina.

Morgantina, a 10th century b.c.e. Greek settlement, was the last remaining Greek outpost of Greek civilization in Sicily, until 211 b.c.e., when it was conquered by the Romans. The treasures of this Greek city-state remained underground for more than two thousand years.

"We knew only of rumors of the discovery of the silver for years," stated Prof. Malcolm Bell of Virginia University.

Prof. Bell became the director of the Morgantina excavations in 1980 (a year before the museum bought the famous silver), along with Prof. Carla Antonaccio of Wesleyan University, who is co-director of the excavations.

The locals were talking about the clandestini who unearthed the silver: utensils, bowls, and two silver horns.

These pieces were so stunning, even the clandestini knew how precious they were.

In the summer of 1984, the Met published a bulletin titled "A Greek and Roman Treasury". In this bulletin a Met curator proclaimed that the fifteen silver objects represented some of the finest Hellenistic silver known from Magna Grecia.

Bell saw this bulletin, along with Prof. Pier Giovanni Guzzo, superintendent of archaeology in Pompeii, and the two knew that it corresponded with the rumors they had heard about in Aidone.

Dr. Bell was asked by a Sicilian magistrate named Silvio Raffiotta, who led a zealous ten year investigation into the silver's true provenance, to excavate the site believed to be where the silver was discovered.

"We excavated a house that was built in the 4th century b.c.e. and abandoned in 211 b.c.e., and discovered alot of evidence that the site was excavated after 1978," Dr. Bell stated. In fact, they discovered two holes,
with newly turned dirt covering them, where Bell believes the pieces were discovered, and then sold to the Museum. Bell declared: "The Met bought the silver in two purchases in 1981 and 1982. In the dirt of one of these holes we discovered a modern coin, a 100 lira piece dated 1978 that one of the looters inadvertently left behind."

"These looters damage walls, go through floors, and destroy various valuable objects and so forth, because they are only interested in precious metal."

Dr. Raffiotta received the sworn testimony of one of the looters who participated in the discovery, in which a detailed description of the fifteen silver objects was given, including the most stunning, a silver disk with the image of Scylla on it.

The looters were paid $1,100 (U.S.) by an antiques dealer, who was previously involved in the sale of the Euphronious Krater, and sold it to the Met for $2.74 million (U.S.). The Euphronious Krater, bought by the Met in the early seventies, is believed to have been looted from an Etruscan tomb in Tuscany, Italy. This dealer was labeled a persona non-grata in Italy.

Prof. Bell, who has a doctorate from Princeton, declared: "Prof. Guzzo examined attentively the treasure and is positive that the artistic style of the work is of Greek Sicilian origin."

"Other evidence was the system of weights and measures used to weigh the silver. A numeric system, unique to the Greeks in Sicily, was incised on the front and backs of the pieces."

"The people of Aidone still fervently desire that the silver be returned to Sicily," stated Dr. Bell.

Dr. Bell told me, "For over fifty years American archaeologists from American universities have been directing the excavations at Morgantina. It is totally inappropriate for an important American museum like the Metropolitan to possess treasure that has been looted from Morgantina."

"The Met is still resisting the repatriation of these pieces," Dr. Bell expressed with frustraion.

I contacted Harold Holzer, the Metropolitan Museum's vice president of communications, and asked him what the museum's current position was on the issue in light of the evidence presented by Dr. Bell and the other experts. Mr. Holzer stated: "We don't want to comment on this at present, because we are continuing to study the claims and reports. Our research continues. We don't want to comment until we have a full understanding of the issue."

When asked if the museum is in active negotiations with the Italian Government, Mr. Holzer replied that there were on going discussions, not negotiations.

According to legal experts who specialize in cultural property, the Italian Government could sue the Met in New York in a Replevin Action. A Replevin Action is one in which the plaintiff seeks the return of the stolen property itself. Since the government can establish that the silver actually came from Italy, and when, it is probable that they would win this case.

So, after twenty years of possessing the silver, the Met claims it still doesn't have an understanding of the issue and continues to study and research the claims and reports.

As for the fifteen objects that represent the finest Hellenistic silver from Magna Grecia, there are only two being displayed at the Met. The other thirteen objects are kept from the public's view, which, according to Mr. Holzer, is due to the remodeling of the Roman galleries.

I must question however, why there is no mention of the silver on the museum's web site, and why the bulletin cannot be located in the museum's library. Do they think that if they keep the treasure low profile for a few decades, that the Italians will forget who it really belongs to?