From tomb to museum: the story of the Sarpedon Krater

Euphronios, Sarpedon Krater, (signed by Euxitheos as potter and Euphronios as painter), c. 515 B.C.E., red-figure terracotta, 55.1 cm diameter (National Museum Cerite, Cerveteri, Italy)

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:05] When I was in high school, one of my favorite objects to visit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art was a Greek vase by an artist whose name is Euphronios.

Dr. Erin Thompson: [0:15] This vase is decorated by Euphronios with a scene from the Trojan War. Sarpedon, a son of Zeus, has died in the battlefield. One thing that the Greeks were afraid of if they died on the battlefield was that their bodies would be neglected. Zeus has sent two messengers, the winged deities Sleep and Death, to take Sarpedon back home.

Dr. Zucker: [0:35] They’re lifting him up so that his torso is exposed to us, so that we can see the beautiful, delicate work in that abdomen.

Dr. Thompson: [0:43] The Greeks thought that actually the best time to die was when you were young and beautiful. You’d never have to know the indignities of growing old.

Dr. Zucker: [0:50] The painters expressed that not only through the beauty of the human body, the definition of musculature, but also in a particularly signal Greek way, representing the face as serene even in the face of death and in perfect profile.

Dr. Thompson: [1:05] You can tell Euphronios must have been very proud of this vase because he signed it right across the top on one side of the head of Hermes, the messenger god who is guiding Sarpedon’s soul, “Euphronios painted me.”

Dr. Zucker: [1:17] Like the pot is speaking.

Dr. Thompson: [1:18] The viewers of this pot would have read these texts out loud. There’s no such thing as reading silently in the ancient world, so you can imagine them drinking wine, talking about Hypnos, Thanatos, and Euphronios.

[1:31] Dr. Zucker. This pot is in exceptionally good condition, and that’s especially clear in the decorative banding that surrounds the major frieze where we see the figures. There are these beautiful palmettes where the drawing remains wonderfully sharp.

Dr. Thompson: [1:44] Which is even more incredible when you consider that Euphronios would have painted this very quickly, before the pot dried too much.

Dr. Zucker: [1:51] We can see the individual lines would have been laid down with a syringe to make a bead of color. We’re seeing it in a state that is not very different from the way it would have been seen when it was first made about 2,500 years ago, which is why this pot was so sought after when it came onto the market.

Dr. Thompson: [2:09] In 1972, the Metropolitan Museum of Art paid a million dollars for this vase.

Dr. Zucker: [2:15] The director of the Metropolitan said that this vase was so important, it would rewrite art history.

Dr. Thompson: [2:19] He thought the drawing was the quality of a Picasso, of a Leonardo da Vinci.

Dr. Zucker: [2:24] It is a stellar example of Attic red-figure vase painting, a style that we believe this artist introduced, and that allowed for the detailed representation of the human body that was so important to the Greeks as they moved towards the Classical Period.

Dr. Thompson: [2:39] The reason it’s so well-preserved is it spent those 2,500 years in a tomb in the Italian town of Cerveteri. It was purchased by ancient Etruscans and buried.

Dr. Zucker: [2:51] The pot was made near Athens and was exported, bought by an Etruscan, that is, the culture that existed just before Rome, and it was buried in a tomb. The Etruscans are known for their elaborate burials.

Dr. Thompson: [3:03] Which preserve things like this for us, but which provide a very tempting target for tomb robbers who try and find things in Etruscan tombs to sell on the art market. That’s exactly what happened in the early 1970s.

Dr. Zucker: [3:16] When a thief identifies a tomb and begins to dig, they’re looking for the most valuable treasures, which means that they’re willing to destroy everything else that they find along the way. Tomb robbery does irreparable harm not only to objects but to archaeological evidence.

Dr. Thompson: [3:32] For example, we don’t know whether the owner of the tomb ever used this vase or not, because by the time it got to the Metropolitan Museum, it had been cleaned and put back together. If archaeologists excavate a tomb, they can see the residues on the inside of pottery to see whether they held a last funerary meal.

Dr. Zucker: [3:49] That knowledge is lost permanently. It will never be recovered. This incredibly important vase could have been even more valuable.

Dr. Thompson: [3:56] By analyzing residues in pottery found in tombs, we can do things like track ecological conditions, see what climate change has been like from 2,500 years ago to the present.

Dr. Zucker: [4:06] How did the pot make its way from a previously unknown tomb to the Greek and Roman galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and then back to Italy, where it is now?

Dr. Thompson: [4:16] It all started with a car crash. Police, when investigating, found that a glove box was stuffed full of photographs of dirty, broken antiquities. After doing a lot of investigating, they eventually found he was part of smuggling ring that was headed by a figure named Giacomo Medici, who had a warehouse in Switzerland filled full of antiquities and filled full of records, records of this vase being sold to a dealer who sold it [to] the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Dr. Zucker: [4:42] This vase actually changed more than art history. It changed the way that we understand these elaborate networks of illicit trade.

Dr. Thompson: [4:49] Prior to the purchase of this vase, there have been plenty of looted antiquities bought by American museums. But nobody really cared. The museums knew that they were probably looted.

[5:00] But this vase caused so much publicity. It was so beautiful, people wanted to know more about it. They were horrified at the thought that this ancient culture was being destroyed in order to produce a few masterworks like this in American museums.

Dr. Zucker: [5:13] The museum should have known better. They were offered a cover story that offered just enough plausible deniability that it allowed the museum to turn a blind eye, which was, at this historical moment, not so uncommon.

Dr. Thompson: [5:27] True. The story they got was that this vase had been owned by a Lebanese art collector and that his grandfather had bought it in London in the early 19-teens, but they really should have asked more questions.

Dr. Zucker: [5:37] The vase ended up at the Met on a lovely pedestal in the middle of the Greek galleries, and the Met was rightfully very proud of it. But our awareness of the damage that is done by graverobbing develops in the next couple of decades, and this vase becomes increasingly problematic.

Dr. Thompson: [5:53] And once the Italians raided that warehouse in Switzerland there was no longer any deniability for the Met. One of the things that the Italian authorities found in this warehouse was a Polaroid of Medici proudly posing next to the Sarpedon vase in the Metropolitan Museum.

[6:08] Interestingly, the way that international law works, there was no legal right for the Italians to reclaim this vase, but the public relations aspect of it was so bad that the Met in 2006 did return it to Italy.

Dr. Zucker: [6:22] When the vase was repatriated, that is, when it was returned to Italy, it went into the Etruscan Museum in Rome, with a lot of pomp and ceremony. This was a great achievement by the Italian law enforcement agencies.

Dr. Thompson: [6:34] It was ultimately returned to Cerveteri, the town where it was dug up from illegally so many years ago. Now, instead of millions of people seeing it, thousands of people do.

Dr. Zucker: [6:46] What is our responsibility now in the modern world? Where should objects reside?

Dr. Thompson: [6:50] Another thing that changes that question is the issue of the technological reproductions we can make.

Dr. Zucker: [6:56] Maybe our technologies do change the equation.

Dr. Thompson: [7:00] Of course, looking at a reproduction is never going to be as good as looking at the original. But if we look at reproductions, we’re not increasing the risk of looting.

[7:08] So I think the sacrifice of looking at reproductions is worthwhile to make sure that these sites aren’t looted anymore; that we never lose the archaeological information that goes along with the beauty of these ancient images.

[7:21] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Erin Thompson and Dr. Steven Zucker, "From tomb to museum: the story of the Sarpedon Krater," in Smarthistory, September 1, 2017, accessed March 3, 2024,