A dark cloud with a silver lining – the ‘Morgantina silver’ returns to Sicily …

25 June, 2010

In the early 1980’s, having been buried deep under Sicilian soil for almost 2000 years, 16 beautifully made pieces of silver emerged into the dubious world of the international antiquities market, ending up in the  display cabinets of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  At the time, the Met announced with excitement that it had acquired  “some of the finest Hellenistic silver known from Magna Graecia,” i.e. those parts of southern Italy and Sicily that had been colonised by the ancient Greeks.  As to the provenance of the objects, however, it stated only that they could have been made in “Taranto [in southern Italy] or in eastern Sicily”. 

It is now believed that the silver was made in Siracusa, on the east coast of Sicily, in about 300 BC, and that, before finding its way onto the international antiquities market,  it had been stolen from the archaeological site of the ancient Greek city of Morgantina in central eastern Sicily.  In January this year, after thirty years of investigation and negotiation, the silver, now generally known as the Morgantina silver, was returned to Italy.  This week I went to see it in Palermo’s archaeological museum, where it will remain on display until August.  Then, it will be returned to the archaeological museum in Aidone, a small town just two kilometres from the Morgantina site.            

It is easy to see why the Met might have been excited by this acquisition.  The sixteen pieces of silver, some of them silver and gilt, are exquisite.  All are relatively small – wine bowls, drinking vessels, plates, ladles, medallions, and horns that may once have been attached to a helmet  –  all very finely made.  The larger bowls, thought to have been used for mixing wine with water or aromatics, have feet made in the shape of theatrical masks; a drinking cup, without any decoration at all, is beautiful and elegant and looks surprisingly modern.    But generally considered the centrepiece of the collection is an image of Scylla, that horrible sea monster from Greek mythology thought to reside on one side of the Straits of Messina that separate Sicily from mainland Italy.  The story of how the Morgantina silver found its way to America and back again shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow the beauty of the objects themselves; nevertheless, it’s a story worth telling for the insight it gives into the shadowy world of the international antiquities market.    

The archaeological site of the ancient Greek city of Morgantina is huge, about 1,000 acres, much of it on private land.  Almost impossible to police!  At one stage, in order to prevent the pillaging they knew was going on, Malcolm Bell III, Chief Archaeologist at the site and Professor of Archaeology at the University of Virginia, and his students even slept there.  They didn’t manage to prevent the Morgantina silver being removed, but Bell has been instrumental in getting it back. 

In the early ‘80s, like everyone else on the site, Bell became aware of rumours that an important stash of silver had been dug up by illegal excavators, known here as  clandestini.  The rumours even contained detailed descriptions of some of the pieces.  Then in 1987, on a visit to the Met in New York, Bell came upon a small collection of silver on display in a corridor devoted to ancient gold and silver.  He was amazed.  The silver so closely matched the descriptions he had heard several years before, he felt sure it had come from Morgantina.  He sought permission to examine the silver – permission it would take 12 years to obtain – and informed the Italian authorities.

Feeling sure that the silver had come from Morgantina and being able to prove it were, however, two very different things.  At this stage, there wasn’t even proof that any silver had been illegally discovered at Morgantina, let alone that it had been sold on the international antiquities market and ultimately acquired by the Met. 

One of the Italian authorities who decided to take a close interest in the story of the Morgantina silver was the chief investigating magistrate for central Sicily, Silvio Raffiotta.  Raffiotta, a native of Aidone, had watched the Morgantina excavations as a child and developed a passion for archaeology as a result.   He had been investigating the possible looting of the Morgantina silver for several years when, in 1996, Giuseppe Mascara, a leading figure among the Sicilian clandestini, was arrested on unrelated charges of trafficking in antiquities and sought to reduce his sentence by providing information.  In sworn testimony, Mascara recounted the finding of the Morgantina silver, describing several of the pieces in detail, including the image of Scylla. 

Not surprisingly, perhaps, given the identity and track record of Mascara, the Met was not impressed with Raffiotta’s evidence.  

Raffiotta then set out to prove that an illegal excavation had taken place.  He obtained from Mascara precise details of the area from which the silver had been taken and arranged for Bell and his team to start digging there in the autumn of 1997.  The area proved to be the site of a house, and there Bell and his team found evidence of two holes that had been recently filled.  At the bottom of one of these holes they found a tiny bronze coin minted between 214 and 212 BC, apparently overlooked by the looters,  and, perhaps more importantly,  a 100-lire piece minted in 1978 that had presumably fallen from a pocket of one of the looters.       

Finally, in 1999, Bell was given permission to examine the silver at the Met.  He interpreted the Greek inscriptions on the objects as a mark of ownership: the possessive form of the name ‘Eupolemos’, a name that was also inscribed on a real estate deed that had been retrieved from the dig.  The deed dated from the 3rd century BC and related to Eupolemos’s acquisition of land near the spot where the silver had been found.

The evidence was mounting.  The Met’s position was not helped by the fact that its acquisition of the silver had been organised by one Robert Hecht, an elderly international art dealer whose dealings had been the subject of controversy for some time.  In 2005, Hecht, together with Marion True, former curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum, was charged in Rome with conspiring to traffic in looted antiquities.  The high-profile trial that followed was still running in 2009.  It may still be today – I haven’t been able to find out.           

Although the Met maintains that it obtained the silver in good faith, it agreed last year to return it to Italy in exchange for long-term loans of certain other Italian antiquities.  So this particular dark cloud has a silver lining – it seems there are many in the world of antiquities that don’t.

8 Responses to “A dark cloud with a silver lining – the ‘Morgantina silver’ returns to Sicily …”

  1. CateM Says:

    Ooh a story of corruption and intrigue – I love it! Especially because it has a happy ending. I agree that the story of the silver’s journey shouldn’t overshadow how stunning the pieces are but it is a great story. It reminds me of a book I read about the discovery of a Caravaggio painting that had been presumed lost for 200 years. Perhaps there’s a book in this story?

    The pieces do look beautiful. I hope I can get to Palermo in time to see them before they are moved again. If not a trip to Aidone and the Morgantina site might be order!

  2. kateludlow Says:

    Yes, lots of corruption and intrigue in this story! It does have a happy ending in the sense that the silver has been identified and returned, but context that might have given archeologists a better understanding of Morgantina has been lost forever. Interesting you should mention a book! After writing this post, I found a book on Morgantina in the local market – it was written by Silvio Raffiotta and published in the early ’80s, so no mention of the silver! A trip to Aidone and Morgantina is now definitely on the agenda. Another important work is due to be returned to the Aidone museum in January 2011 – this time from the Getty Museum in LA. It is a huge 5th century BC statue of Venus that was acquired by the museum in 1988 for a record $18 million. Thank you for the comment.

    • CateM Says:

      Thank you for your reply. You are right, despite the return of the silver much has been lost on account of the theft. I hadn’t considered that.

      It’s amazing that you found a book on Morgantina having just written about it. What I was actually wondering was whether this story could be turned into a book – by you!

      I imagine that there is an intriguing story behind the statue of Venus also!

      • kateludlow Says:

        Oh I see! A book by me! It’s a nice thought, but I’m sure there are many people much better qualified than I am to write such a book – and quite possibly, one has already been written. I have just ordered a book by Alexander Stille (who wrote Excellent Cadavers) called The Future of the Past , which contains some material about Morgantina, but I’m not sure how much.

        I hadn’t really thought about the significance of context either until I started reading archaeologists writing about the looting of archeological sites. And yes, the story of how the statue of Venus travelled to America and back again is also a fascinating one.

  3. Antonio Says:

    Amazing story Kate – and superb detective work by Messrs Raffiotti and Bell. It is always interesting to see how difficult it is to persuade institutions to give up their booty.

    And I agree with Catherine about the book!

    • kateludlow Says:

      Thank you for the comment. I suppose it’s not surprising that museums are reluctant to give up things they’ve paid a lot of money for! Given what has happened over the last few years, I think they are being more careful with their acquisitions these days.

  4. ACS Says:

    Oh such intrigue … I was gripped by this story … worthy of a Hollywood ending surely … made all the more fascinating by it’s truth.

    • kateludlow Says:

      It is a fascinating story – I suspect there are many more like it. And I agree, it would make a great Hollywood movie. Many thanks for commenting.


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