Research to recontextualize looted antiquities: Red-figured pottery in a Genevan warehouse

One of the most important sources of information on the Italic people of 400-300 BCE Southern Italy is the extensive corpus Apulian red-figured vases, some of them impressive specimens of one or two meters tall depicting mythical scenes. These vases are often found in tombs and their ornate decorations are used in research on local funerary rituals and religious eschatological beliefs. A problem in research into the ancient Apulians and their vases is that roughly 80% of the known corpus lacks contextual evidence such as provenance and their specific archaeological kit. This problem has been connected with the art market of the 1980s when many Apulian vases without provenance appeared there. This increase is especially visible in catalogues of auction houses published in the latter half of the 20th century, such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, and art galleries.1 Therefore, the vases are missing a lot of information that is necessary to accurately define and understand the Italian pre-Roman civilization. However, research into clandestine excavations in southern Italy presents an opportunity to partially redress this imbalance. One such example is the 2014 Swiss police raid that uncovered 45 crates of antiquities and historical art, either stolen or looted, including several Apulian vases, which I am now working on.

In research on Apulian vases, the lack of context of many of the vases has severely limited our understanding of the indigenous Apulian civilization. Due to the lack of archaeological context this valuable class of evidence has lost essential information needed to understand this pre-Roman civilization in Southern Italy. Because of this, studies and research on these important vases have mostly been conducted in the context of connoisseurship, placing the vases within a grand scheme of workshops and individual painters. Such an approach can be used to roughly place a vase within a certain place and time and is still often used in archaeological research. Nonetheless, the lack of archaeological context is still difficult to overcome problem regarding our understanding of the ancient Italian civilization of the Apulians.

Recent studies into Apulian vases and their discoveries have been able to restore some of the contexts of vases that were unearthed during the 19th century when collecting was a popular hobby of the Grand Tourists of Europe. An example is the work of Andrea Montanaro, who researched archives to return the context of Apulian vases found in Ruvo.2 This research was possible because certain historical documents from the 19th century openly mention these vases and describe their trajectory through history. Examples of such documents are memoirs, literary journals, and letters. While incredibly helpful, research has shown that most of the known Apulian vases without provenance emerged on the art market during the 1980s, meaning that there are no documents available such as Montanaro’s that would be able to restore the context of these objects as they were looted.

During the 1990s and the start of the 2000s, several chance happenings led to the discovery of an extensive network that facilitated the international illegal trade in antiquities. In 2007, a book by Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini, the Medici Conspiracy, presented this extensive network in a work of investigative journalism that was able to show the world the enormous extent of this network, including several warehouses in Geneva containing looted and stolen ancient artifacts. One of the most prolific of these dealers of illicit art was Giacomo Medici and his archive, documenting all objects that passed through his warehouse, is an invaluable source of information for researchers who aim to identify looted and stolen objects.

In 2014, the Swiss police raided a warehouse in a Genevan Freeport that belonged to the British art dealer, Robin Symes, who was a competitor to Medici and whose role in the illegal antiquities market was uncovered around the same time. Within this warehouse, the authorities uncovered 45 crates filled with antiquities and historical art, either stolen or looted. The material was returned to Italy in 2016 and the Apulian material was deposited as a long-term loan at Aarhus University in 2018. The project received funding from the Independent Research Fund Denmark in 2020 to study the fragments and find ways to restore the archaeology of these objects that have lost their contexts due to illegal excavations and trade. (More about the larger project can be found here:

Figure 1 Apulian fragments from the illegal antiquities market

The deposited material consists of about 1500 fragments that arrived in 32 boxes; some fragments are quite large and easily connected, while a large number of fragments, some only a few millimeters in length and width, are almost impossible to connect to other pieces with certainty.

Figure 2 RS2A, fragments of a volute krater most likely by the Darius painter

My Ph.D. thesis is part of the larger project of the Museum of Ancient Art in Aarhus and the aim is to find connections between the fragments and illegally excavated sites in Apulia. I started in January of this year and have been reassembling the fragments to analyze them. I have identified links between about 900 out of 1500 fragments with surety by connecting them as a type of puzzle. Another few hundred are linked together but without full certainty.

Right now, I am identifying the workshops and painters that created the vases and writing descriptions to have a starting point from which further contextual research will be undertaken. For now, it seems like most of reassembled vases adhere to the Late Apulian style and that most of these are related to the workshop of the Darius-Underworld and Baltimore-White Sakkos workshops. There are a few exceptions in the form of Attic and Lucanian fragments. In the context of this blog, I would like to highlight two vases. These are quite similar to each other and probably belong to the same painter: the Darius painter. They are both large volute kraters, of roughly the same size, depicting mythical scenes. RS2A shows an Ilioupersis scene and RS19B features a scene with Artemis, identified by her bow and a deer and her brother Apollo, identified by the branch of laurel and the swan next to him, as well as his proximity to his sister.

Figure 3 Detail of RS2A at a later stage of the reassembling
Figure 4 RS19B, another monumental volute krater most likely by the same painter

The next step will be to investigate the history and distribution of clandestine excavation in Apulia with the aim of mapping where and when archaeological sites have been looted. I also hope to research archives to map illegal excavations as much as possible and to collaborate with Italian archaeologists.

Marie Hélène van de Ven, "Research to recontextualize looted antiquities: Red-figured pottery in a Genevan warehouse", in Klinai, Lyon, 11 novembre 2021,

  1. Nørskov, V. (2003) ‘Greek vases for sale: some statistical evidence’ in N. Brodie and K. Walker Tubb (eds.) Illicit Antiquities: the theft of culture and the extinction of archaeology. Routledge,23-37 []
  2. Montanaro, A.C. (2007), Ruvo di Puglia e il suo territorio: le necropoli: i corredi funerari tra la documentazione del XIX secolo e gli scavi moderni (Studia archeologica 160). L´Erma di Bretschneider, Rome []

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