Minneapolis Institute of Arts returns Greek pottery to Italy

The Minneapolis Institute of Arts is handing over a piece of Greek pottery from 5th Century, B.C. to Homeland Security and U.S. Immigration in order to see that the object is returned to its rightful owner, the Italian government.

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Athenian Red-figure Volute Krater

Attributed to the Methyse Painter, 460-450 B.C.

Image courtesy the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

The MIA purchased the Greek krater back in 1983 from a well known dealer. Since then it’s held a prominent place in the museum’s relatively modest antiquities collection.

But in 2006 a criminal investigation into another dealer, Giacomo Medici,

revealed a storehouse of images of looted objects. A few of those photographs depicted a krater that looked startlingly similar to the one in the MIA’s collection.

Read about how the MIA traces the ownership of the art in its collection.

According to the MIA’s director Kaywin Feldman, the staff at the MIA began looking into the ownership history of their Grecian krater to determine whether it might or might not be the object in question, but a change in museum leadership, and the departure of a department head resulted in the issue being dropped.

After I arrived here, sometime later, I started to notice that whenever these polaroid photographs were mentioned in books or in the media, Minneapolis was always listed among the cities that might have some of these objects. Out of curiosity I actually contacted the Italian ministry of culture a year ago.

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Kaywin Feldman

That conversation led to an exchange of information which eventually determined the MIA’s krater had likely been illegally excavated. The MIA’s board of directors voted in March to deaccession the object and return it to the Italian government. The Italian government for its part has stated that it is thankful for the return of the krater.

Feldman says standards around provenance requirements have changed drastically since the krater was first acquired in 1983:

At the time we did ask for provenance and were told that it came from ‘a private collection in Switzerland.’ That was acceptable in 1983 – now it would not be acceptable. And in fact now we wouldn’t acquire any excavated work of ancient art unless it had provenance showing that it had been out of its country of origin since at least 1970.

Feldman says due to American museums’ increased rigor around provenance, the market for looted antiquities has all but dried up.

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The Minneapolis Institute of Arts returned Fernand Leger’s “Smoke Over Rooftops” to the heirs of Jewish art collector Alphonse Kann.

Image courtesy of Minneapolis Institute of Arts

This is not the first time the MIA has had to give up an item in its collection. In October of 2008 the museum returned an early 20th century painting by Fernand Leger, after determining it was looted by Nazis during the German occupation of France.

Currently no other items in the MIA are a source of concern, but Feldman says determining the history of objects in the collection is a regular part of the museum’s work.

We have 83,000 objects in our collection. Since we’ve been here for almost 100 years, there are objects that came to us in 1916 that may not have been fully researched, so determining the history of an object is always an ongoing process.

While the return of the Greek krater has been agreed upon, logistics are still being worked out. Feldman estimates the krater will remain at the museum for at least a month, possibly several months. The MIA is taking advantage of the opportunity to educate the public; the krater is currently on display with an accompanying explanation of the investigation.

Oh and if you’re wondering why a Greek object is being returned to Italian authorities, Feldman attributes it to “early globalism.” Evidently Romans and Etruscans were very interested in collecting Greek objects, including kraters, which were used for mixing wine. This krater was so valued that it was included in a Roman burial, in what is present-day Italian soil.

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