Saturday, September 5, 2009

Review: The Lost Chalice

Summary: 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 archaeologists, 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. -- William Morrow

Booking Pap Pap is always interested in learning something when he reads, so I had a feeling that he might be interested in THE LOST CHALICE by Vernon Silver. When he first began reading it, he wasn't too sure that he was going to enjoy it; however, he kept mentioning little things about the story to me. I had a feeling that he was going to end up thinking it was a pretty good read. I wasn't too far off -- here are his thoughts:

I was a little hesitant to read a book about archaeology but concluded there is something of interest in every book. So with that unenthusiastic mindset I began reading THE LOST CHALICE by Vernon Silver. After somewhat of a slow start this true account shared interesting stories of Greek mythology, ancient history, antique pottery, tomb robbers, unscrupulous antique art dealers and collectors and the infamous Italian police.

Silver begins his story in 1990 with the sale of a twenty-five-hundred-year-old Greek kylix wine cup (the lost chalice) to an anonymous European art dealer. The chalice, created by Euphronios depicted the death of Zeus’s son Sarpedon in the Battle of Troy (The Iliad and Odyssey) and was similar to the Euphronios krater (pot for mixing water and wine) purchased by the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1972. Silver shares with his readers the tale of these two pieces of pottery along with a third Euphronios piece which along with the chalice was once owned by Bunker Hunt.

The writer takes us through the Sant’Angelo region of Italy in the early 1970s where robbers pillaged old Etruscan tombs of their most valuable antiquities and in the process destroyed the capability to develop the historic footprint of the tombs. Silver introduces us to Italian Giacomo Medici and American Robert Hecht, two of the most notorious antiquities dealers of the time who profited greatly from the Etruscan tomb robbing.

The author follows the Italian police efforts to investigate the crimes, bring the law-breakers to justice and return the stolen art to Italy. Italy’s objective was to discourage tomb robbers by forcing museums and private collectors to insist on more documentation before buying. Unfortunately the police became part of the problem when one of their investigators dropped and broke one of the rarest cups.

The book opens our eyes to the fact that greed, arrogance and questionable ethics abound in the antiquities business whether it be the robbers, the dealers, the world famous museums or the private collectors. Even Oxford University was inadvertently involved in the illegal trade by certifying the age of the artifacts which gave the dealers the credible documentation they needed to sell the art.

Silver, an Oxford trained archaeologist, is well qualified to tell this story. I believe the story is based on Silver’s doctorate thesis. However in my opinion the author falls short in his attempt to write the story as a mystery novel. He also seems to repeat the same information several times throughout the book.

If you are interested in antiquities and art history this is a good read. It may cause you on your next visit to a museum to question how they procured the artifacts you’ve been admiring. Unfortunately much of the illegal artifacts trade continues today as evidenced by the looting of the Iraqi treasures that occurred after the allied invasion.

Thanks to Booking Pap Pap for his fantastic review and to the publisher for sending us a copy of THE LOST CHALICE.


bermudaonion said...

I'm so glad to see Booking Pap Pap back - I've missed his reviews. This book sounds fascinating even with the repetitions in it. We spent a long time in the Egyptian wing of The Met in May and now I'm wondering how they got all of those artifacts. Great review!

Amy said...

As a kid, I totally wanted to be an archeologist. I'll have to check this out. Thanks for the review!

Beth F said...

Well I love books about archaeology (fits my schooling!) so I may pick this one up one of these days.

Anna said...

Ooh, this one sounds good. Great review Booking Pap Pap.

Diary of an Eccentric

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

Love the review. This one looks terrific.

jezebelsk said...

Added to my wishlist!

S. Krishna said...

Thank you, Booking Pap Pop! I saw this book when I was at the Met in NYC last week and was really curious about it. It's definitely going on my wishlist now!