“A riveting story of tomb robbers and antiquities smugglers, high-stakes auctioneers and the princely chiefs of the world’s most prestigious museums….A terrific read, from start to finish.”
—James L. Swanson, New York Times bestselling author of Manhunt
An Oxford-trained archaeologist and award-winning journalist based in Rome, Vernon Silver brings us The Lost Chalice, the electrifying true story of the race to secure a priceless, 2,500-year-old cup depicting the fall of Troy—a lost treasure crafted by Euphronios, an artist widely considered “the Leonardo Da Vinci of ancient Greece.” A gripping, real life mystery, The Lost Chalice gives readers a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of great museums and antiquities collections—exposing a world of greed, backstabbing, and double-dealing.
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About 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.
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
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.