The Lost Chalice: The Epic Hunt for a Priceless Masterpiece

Overview

A pulse-pounding real-life chase for an ancient masterpiece of immeasurable value . . .

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Nothing of its kind had been sold to the public in more than a century. On a warm June evening on Manhattan's Upper East Side, with the auction-house showroom crammed with the wealthy, the curious, and the press, history was made when an anonymous man in a green golf sweater paid an unprecedented three quarters of a...

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Overview

A pulse-pounding real-life chase for an ancient masterpiece of immeasurable value . . .

Sotheby's. New York City. June 19, 1990.

Nothing of its kind had been sold to the public in more than a century. On a warm June evening on Manhattan's Upper East Side, with the auction-house showroom crammed with the wealthy, the curious, and the press, history was made when an anonymous man in a green golf sweater paid an unprecedented three quarters of a million dollars to win the twenty-five-hundred-year-old chalice. After that night, this historical artifact disappeared, its whereabouts a mystery. Until now.

It is among the most prized of antiquities: the Greek artist Euphronios's wine cup depicting the death of Zeus's son Sarpedon at Troy. Lost for more than two millennia, the chalice—one of only six of its kind found intact—mysteriously surfaced in the collection of a Hollywood producer, who then sold it to a Texas billionaire. Coveted by obsessed private collectors, dealers, and museum curators, it was also of intense interest to the Italian police, who believed it belonged to their country, where it had first been dug up earlier in the twentieth century.

In this breathtaking tale of history, adventure, and intrigue, archaeologist and journalist Vernon Silver pieces together the extraordinary tale of the lost cup and offers a portrait of the modern antiquities trade: a world of tomb raiders, smugglers, wealthy collectors, ambitious archaeol-ogists, rapacious dealers, corrupt curators, and international law enforcement. Spanning twenty-five hundred years, The Lost Chalice moves from the mythic battlefield of the Trojan War to the countryside of twentieth-century Tuscany, the dusty libraries of Oxford University to the exhibition halls of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the cramped law-enforcement offices of the Carabinieri to the tony rooms of New York's auction houses to solve the mystery of the world's rarest masterpiece.

As Silver learns, the discovery of the chalice exposes another riddle—and an even greater missing treasure. Epic and thrilling, The Lost Chalice is a driving true-life detective story that illuminates a big-money, high-stakes, double-dealing world, which is as fascinating as it is unforgettable. Silver's thrilling tale opens a window onto Italian history, culture, and life rarely seen.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Focusing on a piece by the renowned ancient Greek vase painter and potter Euphronios, archeologist and journalist Silver presents a captivating tale of ancient art as a modern hot commodity. Euphoronius' "lost" kylix (chalice) mysteriously reappeared in the early 1970s after 2,400 years, it was purchased at auction in 1990 by a man identified only as a "European dealer," and again disappeared from public view. Silver deftly traces the intricate path of the chalice from Cerveteri, Italy, where robbers unearthed the Greppe Sant'Angelo tomb complex in 1971. The multifaceted story is grippingly revealed by Silver, who writes with verve and aplomb, along with the tale of a companion krater, or vase, by Euphronios, long housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and returned to Italy in 2008 under a landmark arrangement. Silver's telling is infused with an infectious curiosity about the illicit art trade and an equally infectious appreciation of the art itself, adding up to a fascinating look at "the dealings of tomb robbers, smugglers, wealthy collectors, ambitious archaeologists, and corrupt curators."
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
Archaeologist and journalist Silver traces the route of a lost masterpiece. More than 2,500 years ago, Athenian artist Euphronios created a krater (bowl) and kylix (chalice) depicting the death of Sarpedon, a son of Zeus killed by Patroclus during the Trojan War. Buried for two millennia within the tombs of the wealthy former inhabitants of Caere (now Cerveteri), the ceramics were unearthed in 1971 by local tombaroli (tomb robbers). Not knowing the real value of Euphronios's work, the robbers sold the fragments to their dealer, Giacomo Medici. Medici sold the krater to the American department-store scion Robert Hecht, who in turn sold it to the Metropolitan Museum, under chief of Greek and Roman art Dietrich von Bothmer, for $1 million in 1972. Though the Met was not forthcoming about the artifact's provenance, the krater made a sensational debut in the press. However, according to the statutes of an antiquities law enacted by Mussolini in 1939, all ancient artifacts found on Italian soil became property of the state, and the Italian police were already hot on the trail of the Cerveteri tombaroli. When the news of a companion chalice-its whereabouts mysterious for years-became public, the lawsuits against Medici began. He was eventually convicted of supplying hundreds of undocumented objects to auction houses and museums around the world, among them Euphronios's krater, which returned to Italy in 2008. Though it becomes convoluted, Vernon's sharply rendered account is engrossing. A densely packed, dizzyingly detailed tale of art and espionage.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061558283
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 6/2/2009
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Vernon Silver's distinguished reporting on art and culture has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, Spy magazine, and other publications. An Oxford-trained archaeologist and award-winning journalist, he studied Egyptology at the American University in Cairo and is a senior writer at Bloomberg News in Rome.

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Read an Excerpt

The Lost Chalice
The Real-Life Chase for One of the World's Rarest Masterpieces...a Priceless 2,500-Year-Old Artifact Depicting the Fall of Troy

Chapter One

Burying Sarpedon

Hidden in the Western world's greatest epic lies the tragic story of an obscure prince named Sarpedon. His fight to the death is often forgotten amid the star-studded cast of Homer's Iliad. But seven centuries after the fabled Trojan War, Sarpedon's blood-drenched demise inspired Euphronios to create ceramic masterpieces in his Athens workshop. One was the krater pot depicting Sarpedon that would end up in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The other, a kylix drinking cup bearing the same decoration, would become the lost chalice.

During his career, in the years just before 500 b.c., Euphronios's works were possessions that were prized far from Greece's shores. Like most of his known vases, the Sarpedon cup and its bigger match made their way across the Mediterranean on ships sailed either by Greeks or their foreign trading partners, the Etruscans, who inhabited a land called Etruria in what is today modern Italy. Comparatively little is known about the Etruscans, a civilization predating the Romans. Their remains have been found in the part of Italy now know as Tuscany, and in Rome's northern suburbs. The word Tuscany even comes from "Etruscan."

The Etruscans imported so many Greek vases—and buried so many of them in their tombs—that archaeologists once mistakenly believed these pots had been made in Italy. Of all the known works by Euphronios with documented archaeological origins, only one turned up in Athens. All the others were dug up inEtruria. And of those, most came from sites in the city of Caere, which today is an Italian town called Cerveteri. The wealthier, social-climbing Etruscans in Caere built collections, snapping up imported vases by Euphronios and his Athenian competitors. When these Etruscan connoisseurs died, they and their collections of goblets and statues were buried in stone tombs modeled after the layouts of their homes.

In tracing the exact path of Euphronios's greatest works, the trail largely goes cold in the necropolis of ancient Cerveteri. Over the past century, tomb robbers have destroyed almost all evidence of the pots' ancient life stories—and by extension, our ability to decipher the history of the Etruscans.

But not all is lost. We do know that sometime around 400 b.c., the Etruscans who had been lucky enough to own Euphronios's Sarpedon krater and kylix buried them in the soil of Caere. Although the Etruscans who bought the chalice and krater may remain an enigma, we know the journey of the twin pots starts at a burial ground of stone tombs north of Rome, where the Etruscans sealed their treasures behind simple sepulcher doors. The Sarpedon chalice and its bigger twin sat in darkness for twenty-four hundred years.

Young Dietrich von Bothmer was twelve years old when he saw his first Euphronios vase, a krater pot for mixing wine, painted with a scene of nude athletes at a gymnasium. What von Bothmer saw during that visit to the Berlin Antikensammlung museum, probably in 1931, was a tableau of young men getting dressed and undressed amid equally naked servant boys. On one side of the two-handled keg, on which the clay-colored figures glow against a black background, a youth holds a jar out of which he pours oil for rubdowns. An athlete plays with his discus while a toga-wearing pal extends an index finger toward the discus thrower's penis. In all, they seem to be having a fine time at the gym.

Von Bothmer decided on the spot to become an archaeologist. And the discipline certainly could use passionate, new talent to help bridge the gaps in knowledge of the past that centuries of treasure hunting and tomb robbing had left.

One example of the challenges facing archaeology sat in front of von Bothmer at the Berlin museum. Little was known at the time about the krater that had captured his imagination; it had been dug up just north of Naples in Capua, an ancient city on the Appian Way, one of the longer roads that famously lead to Rome. But its earlier origins were a matter of interpretation. Even the attribution of the vase to Euphronios was an educated guess, as the krater bore no signature.

Without signatures or without knowing where such pots were found, museums, collectors, and scholars relied on stylistic comparisons. This pot looked like a Euphronios. And the man who had the final say was at Oxford. Sir John Beazley, professor of archaeology and the world's leading authority on Greek pots, declared that the krater was a Euphronios. And so it was.

Confronted with collections and museums packed with pots of unknown origins, Beazley devised a system for grouping and attributing ancient vases that was based largely on interpreting styles. That remains the standard today. With so few vases having signatures, Beazley and his colleagues had to invent names for the artists. The painter of one particularly fine vase, which sits near the Euphronios that inspired young von Bothmer, was dubbed the Berlin Painter, after the German museum. Now, following Beazley's system, any vase that resembles the technique of the original "Berlin Painter" is given the same attribution.

Even in his native Germany, Dietrich von Bothmer learned of Beazley's mastery of Greek pots. It was just a matter of time before von Bothmer followed his youthful fascination all the way to Beazley's office. In 1938, the promising archaeologist sailed to England and went up to Oxford as one of Germany's last Rhodes scholars admitted before war erupted.

Oxford was, and is, a place as confusing as it is fascinating, a conglomeration of a few dozen semiautonomous colleges and as many academic departments, museums, and labs. The nineteen-year-old von Bothmer was lost as soon as he arrived.

Oxford's Wadham College had admitted him as a student for the diploma in classical archaeology, but when von Bothmer got to Wadham, a fellow of the college said he needed to hike over to Christ Church, the college where his tutor—the faculty member responsible for preparing him for his exams—was based. Map in hand, young Dietrich, speaking imperfect English, made his way to the edge of the campus and learned from his alleged tutor at Christ Church that he'd be supervised by Professor Beazley. Beazley, said the Christ Church don, was expecting von Bothmer at the university's Ashmolean Museum.

The Lost Chalice
The Real-Life Chase for One of the World's Rarest Masterpieces...a Priceless 2,500-Year-Old Artifact Depicting the Fall of Troy
. Copyright © by Vernon Silver. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Sort by: Showing all of 6 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 4, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    This is a fascinating though convoluted account that will shock and fascinate readers

    Vernon Silver shines a spotlight over the shockingly cut-throat often illegal (by even renowned museums) competition for priceless ancient art by focusing on a kylix by famous ancient Greek artisan Euphronios. Twenty-four centuries ago the renowned potter created a chalice that vanished into ancient antiquity only to surface in 1971 when tomb robbers digging near Cerveteri, Italy, uncovered the Greppe Sant'Angelo tomb. The tombaroli thieves sold the piece to a dealer, who sold it to an American who sold it to the Metropolitan Museum for $1 million in 1972. It was purchased by a dealer in 1990 only to vanish again until 2008 when it was returned to Italy.

    This is a fascinating though convoluted account that will shock and fascinate readers. Mr. Silver provides a deep look at art accountability, theft, and private and public sales as larcenous behavior including private "burials" has been the norm. THE LOST CHALICE is surprisingly exciting, insightful and stunning nonfiction.

    Harriet Klausner

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 9, 2009

    Perfect for Book Clubs

    Our book club is always looking for a novel that can excite all 10 of its members. "The Lost Chalice" appears to have everything: intrigue, history, adventure, antiquities and art, fascinating characters, international locales and finance, archeology, culture and, most importantly, great writing and impeccable research. We've already ordered our 10 copies and can't wait to read it. If "The Lost Chalice" is only half as good as its reviews, we'll be happy.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted June 5, 2009

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