It was here at Morgantina, just outside the modern town of Aidone, that in the late 1970s or early 1980s, a breathtaking statue of a goddess, draped in a windswept robe and standing over seven feet tall, is believed to have been found. First thought to be Aphrodite and now widely considered to be Persephone, the statue, which dates to about 425 B.C., has become one of the most contested artworks in the world.
A precedent for art repatriation was set in Roman antiquity when Cicero prosecuted Verres, a senate member and illegal appropriator of art. Cicero's speech influenced Enlightenment European thought and had an indirect impact on the modern debate about art repatriation. Cicero's argument uses military episodes of plunder as "case law" and expresses certain standards when it comes to appropriating cultural property of another people. Cicero makes a distinction between public and private uses of art and what is appropriate for each and he also asserts that the primary purpose of art is religious expression and veneration. He also sets standards for the responsibilities of imperial administration abroad to the code of ethics surrounding the collection of art from defeated Greece and Rome in wartime. Later, both Napoleon and Lord Elgin would be likened to Verres in condemnations of their plundering of art.
In some cases, this may mean parting with objects we have known for decades. When I was growing up, a reproduction of the Euphronios Krater, flattened onto a small varnished panel, hung on a wall of my family home. I used to wonder at the scene and its coded urgency: who were the strange winged and masked figures, and why were they grappling with the muscular body of the young man? When I finally saw the original, it seemed to be a flashback to a death I had actually witnessed, so visceral were the outlines. Encountering more of the vase’s history, I wasn’t happy to discover that my education in art had been facilitated by looting and smuggling. Neither am I happy that the Krater is no longer in New York, where other schoolchildren might have profited from it. But I’ve also learned that a productive approach to this controversy requires seeing the good side of the bad and the bad side of the good. Perhaps the Euphronios Krater has finally come home; but “homecoming” is a concept as many-faceted as the people who wish to shelter and treasure such an extraordinary object.