Loot Me Not

By Galina Eccles

Art History I



          In the Princeton Art Museum sits, in its own display case in the middle of the room, a large red-figured painted clay vase attributed to the late-Archaic period, Greece (5th-6th century BC) Attic artist simply known as the Kleophrades Painter. The information placards in the display discuss the “psykter shape” of the vase, its intended use as a wine cooler, the Athenian sympotic (drinking party) scene it depicts, and its obvious mending (probably done in ancient times). Casual visitors to the museum may recognize the artistry of the piece, but they may not understand its value. It was and is a very valuable piece, and it is its value that has made this vase a world traveler, both in ancient and modern times. But it does not belong to Princeton, and next year it will be traveling home, not to Greece, but to Italy. [1]

            Visual Analysis

Similar to other Attic pottery, the vase was created out of clay on a wheel and, before painting, was left out to air dry until the clay became leather hard.[2] The vase was then painted with slip or diluted slip that, when fired, turned shades of black. Red-figured pottery was created using a three-stage firing technique.[3] Three stages occurred during a single firing.[4] The process proceeded with the kiln being heated up to around 800oC with the vents left opened to let air in. This allowed the pottery to turn a red hue. After the kiln reached 800oC, the vents were closed and the temperature was raised to 950oC and then lowered down to 900oC. This process allowed the pottery to turn black. The last stage was to open the kiln vents to cool it down, turning the unpainted areas to red while leaving the painted slip black.[5]

The shape of the vase is part of the artistry of the piece. At the top of the vase there is a small opening on a round black neck that leads to the widest and roundest part of the vase. This center part is supported by a round black column and a foot. Unlike a lot of other Attic pottery found in the museum, this vase has no handles.

The vase consists of three painted bands. The largest band is painted on the widest part of the vase and shows the main pictorial scene of revelers at the symposium. The other two bands, one above and one below the larger middle band, are used as ornamentation. A geometric motif of outlined black-figured painted tongues circles the shoulder of the vase. The medium-sized bottom band, painted using black-figure technique, stretches around the vase and consists of icons of objects that were commonly found in a symposium, including a dog, a walking stick, and a number of other pottery shapes.

Even though the scene shows individuals involved in a common activity, it is not realistic. The style it is painted in is idealized. The Greeks saw the young male body as a beautiful representation of the human form. On this vase the young male figures are almost too good to be true in their appearances. You see this with the exaggerated muscles and the extra lines and theatrical appearance on the figures’ drapery.

Outlining of the objects and figures gives our images a flat-like representation. The medium dictates this linear style – applying slip to pottery allows for little else. Still the artist was able to use thin lines to produce fine details. The use of wavy lines appears graceful, gentle, and calm, allowing for a mood that fits with the scene. To add some perspective, the busy scene is executed through the careful overlapping of objects. Overlapping became popular in red-figure painting because red figures were outlined in black, unlike in black-figure painting where the figures were all black on a red background.

Color is also dictated by the medium. There are two major colors that can be produced – black and red. Except for the two smaller ornamental bands, black is used for the background and outlining while the red of the clay is used for the foreground. In the subsidiary bands, the reverse is true. A light brown tone, made by diluted slip, can be seen on the figures’ arms, ribs, and necks. This technique gives shadows and heightens the idea of idealized muscles on the figure.  

Its Value, Past and Present

This particular vase is an example of Athenian culture as it existed in the 5th century BC. The psykter vase depicts men and male youths lounging around on couches and drinking wine. This very well known Athenian scene is known as a symposium, which means just what the scene is representing, a social gathering of men drinking and relaxing. It depicts a scene that apparently was common in Athenian society.

While the exact provenance of the vase is unknown, it is believed to have been recently found in Italy, mostly likely from a plundered Etruscan tomb. Similar to thousands of others, the vase was most likely made in Athens for export and then sold to a wealthy person in Etruria.[6]

The Etruscans coveted Athenian pottery and were insatiable collectors.[7] Exported Athenian pottery was both in Etruscan homes and in tombs, with one of the most popular subjects being symposiums, which were also common in the Etruscan society.[8] It is interesting that the symposium theme is both the scene on the vase and its purpose – actual guests at a symposium would view this idealized sympotic scene as they partied. The psykter vase stayed afloat in a krater, which is a large mixing bowl that contained cold water to keep the wine chilled. As the vase moved around in the krater, the balanced continuous scene of the symposium was almost like a mini motion picture giving visual interest to the drinkers.[9]

This particular vase shows evidence of repairs, which was common in ancient times with broken, but prized, objects.[10], [11],[12] Even though only a poor tradesman or slave,[13],[14] the Kleophrades Painter is now considered, “One of the greatest figures in the history of Athenian vase painting.”[15] One can only assume that his artistry was appreciated by the Etruscans as well. Its owner prized it enough to place in his tomb

That leads us to the present day. There is no notice in the museum that this piece of antiquity was sold in 1989 to the museum by Robert Hecht, who says in his memoirs that he bought it from a known tomb robber for $225,000.[16] Since 2004, Hecht has been on trial in Italy on charges of illicit trading in antiquities. After these facts were revealed, the art museum and Italian cultural authorities agreed that the vase belongs to Italy and will be returned in 2011.[17]


Art museums serve an important purpose. Over 130 years ago James Jackson Jarves, a noted newspaper editor and art collector, wrote an article on the importance of art museums where he said, “We all want to know, or we ought to, what other peoples have done or can do better than ourselves, and a museum is just the place to go to in order to find out our deficiencies and obtain that knowledge and pleasure which our indigenous artistic and intellectual resources fail to supply.” [18]

Museums can argue that they are custodians of history and should display art from different cultures and times, but it is not ethical for museums to acquire and display smuggled artifacts ignoring their true provenances. Like in the Indiana Jones movies, we still face issues with tomb robbers. Inexcusable looting has occurred throughout history and the amount of stolen antiquity is mind boggling. The Princeton psykter is not the only looted antiquity that sits in a museum. In 1986 alone, around 6,100 items were involved in 284 separate stolen art investigations and a large portion of these thefts involved Italy.[19]

Now the question is how do we stop the looting? How can we help such priceless antiquities from being “excavated from the bowels of the earth,” “deprived of their identity,” and “reduced to mere objects of beauty, without a soul?”[20] We stop the looting by having more enforcement of laws concerning antiquity trading and encouraging the display of artifacts close to where they are discovered.  To allow others to see such treasures we can encourage traveling exhibitions like the recent King Tut exhibition, where the artifacts remained in the possession of the Egyptian government. This will help stop the tomb robbers from being able to sell their plundered goods in foreign marketplaces.

Works Cited

[1] Cass Cliatt, "Princeton University Art Museum and Italy to sign agreement over antiquities," News at Princeton, http://www.princeton.edu/main/
news/archive/S19/34/26K47/index.xml?section=topstories&path=/main/news/archive/ S19/34/26K47/index.xml&next=1 (accessed March 9, 2010).

[2]  Department of Greek and Roman Art. “Athenian Vase Painting: Black- and Red-Figure Techniques.” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org////_vase.htm (October 2002) (accessed March 11, 2010).

[3]  Ibid.

[4]  Dimitrova, Christina. “Pottery Production in Ancient Greece.” Geoarchaeology and Archaeomineralogy, Proceedings of the International Conference (October 2008): 108-110. http://mgu.bg///‌20Dimitrova.pdf (accessed March 11, 2010), 110.

[5]  Ibid.

[6]  Michael Padgett, "The Kleophrades Painter," Perseus Digital Library Project, http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hoppter/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0013 (accessed March 10, 2010)

[7]  Robin Osborne, "Why Did Athenian Pots Appeal to the Etruscans?" World Archaeology; Archaeology and Aesthetics 33, no. 2 (October 2001): 277, http://www.jstor.org/stable/827903 (accessed March 11, 2010).

[8]  Adolfo J. Dominguez, review of Vasen für Etrurien. Verbreitung und Funktionen attischer Keramik im Etrurien des 6. und 5. Jahrhunderts v. Chr., by Christoph Reusser, Bryn Mawr Classical Review, no. 2003.06.11 (2003), http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2003/2003-06-11.html (accessed March 11, 2010).

[9]   Andrew J. Clark, Maya Elston, and Mary Louise Hart, Understanding Greek Vases: A Guide to Terms, Styles, and Techniques (Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2001),104,134.

[10]  Ackland Fun, "Wine Container (Neck Amphora): Departing Warrior; Apollo Flanked by Maidens," Ackland Art Museum, http://www.ackland.org/tours/classes/ bucci.html (accessed March 8, 2010).

[11]   Jiri Frel, "The Kleophrades Painter in Malibu," J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 4 (1977): 70.

[12]  Maya Elston, "Ancient Repairs of Greek Vases in the J. Paul Getty Museum," J. Paul Getty Museum Journal 18 (1990): 60,
http://www.jstor.org/pss/4166600 (accessed March 9, 2010)

[13]  Christina Dimitrova.

[14]  Jiri Frel,: 63.

[15]  Gisela M.A. Richter, "The Kleophrades Painter," American Journal of
Archaeology 40, no. 1 (January-February 1936): 100.

[16]  Peter Watson, The Medici Conspiracy (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007), 177-179.

[17]  Cass Cliatt.

[18]  James Jackson Jarves, "Value of Art Museums; a Chance for Public-spirited Men of Wealth. Collections of Old Masters in Europe-- a Cheap
Market for Art Objects-- America's Great Need--Museums as a Means to Profitable Education." New York Times, November 25, 1879, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/ abstract.html?res=9400E1DA1738E23ABC4D51DFB7678382669FDE (accessed April 9, 2010).

[19]  Ellen Herscher, "The Antiquities Market," Journal of Field Archaeology 14, no. 2 (1987): 223, http://www.jstor.org/stable/530141 (accessed
March 11, 2010).

                [20]  Elisabetta Povoledo, "After Legal Odyssey, Homecoming Show for Looted Antiquities," New York Times, December 18, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/ 18/arts/design/18trea.html (accessed March 13, 2010).

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