For nearly 2,500 years, Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry, has led his dancing followers round and round a 2-foot-tall vase.
Now the vase is on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which bought the piece in 1983 to celebrate its centennial.
But Italian authorities are claiming it as looted property that rightfully belongs to them.
The institute, which has not been accused of wrongdoing, is one of eight American museums that Italian authorities last week said possessed objects allegedly dug illegally from ancient graves and ruins.
The Italians support their claim on the Minneapolis piece with a photo of a pottery fragment that appears to match the vase.
"We've not received any notification from the Italians and have no proof that the object was looted," said William Griswold, the museum's director. "If we have reason to believe an object has been stolen, we would absolutely want to respond in an ethical and legally responsible fashion."
Looting of ancient archaeological sites has increased dramatically in the past 40 years, experts say, spurred on by war, changing national boundaries, cheap air fares, poverty and increased interest in prime artifacts. A British government study in 2000 concluded that between $4 billion and $6 billion a year changes hands in illicit trade in antiquities and cultural items.
An investigation in L.A.
Questions about the Minneapolis vase surfaced as part of a decadelong Italian investigation of art bought by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles in the 1980s and early '90s. A former Getty curator, Marion True, goes on trial Wednesday in Rome on charges of conspiring to traffic in illicit antiquities.
Italian authorities claim that the Getty has 42 illegal objects. Last week that museum returned three pieces to Italy in hopes of settling the case and developing "a productive relationship with Italy."
Griswold was acting director of the Getty for a year before moving to Minneapolis last month. He said he had been briefed on the Getty's situation while working there but was not questioned by legal authorities about the antiquities, which were bought before he was hired.
The Minneapolis and Getty cases hinge in part on a cache of 10,000 Polaroids of looted objects that Italian police seized in a 1995 raid on a Swiss warehouse operated by Giacomo Medici, an antiquities dealer who last year was sentenced in Rome to 10 years in prison for trafficking in illegal art.
Medici, who is free while appealing his conviction, apparently bought antiquities from grave robbers, had them restored and then sold them to museums and private collectors through a network of respected art dealers. A Roman prosecutor claims to have a photo of Medici at the Getty beside an illicit vase the dealer sold the museum.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts bought its vase "in good faith" from Robin Symes, a prominent British antiquities dealer in the 1980s, said museum spokeswoman Anne-Marie Wagener.
Symes was one of the Getty's main sources of antiquities. His reputation was questioned by that museum's staff even while they were doing business with him, according to internal memos. In 1987 Symes was referred to as "a fence" by Harold Williams, then chief executive of the Getty Trust, which oversees the museum, according to written notes secured by the Los Angeles Times.
A 'grand object' with a past
Michael Conforti, director of the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., was head curator at the Minneapolis museum in 1983. He recommended the purchase of the vase, which is technically a "volute-krater" used to hold a mixture of water and wine.
During a phone interview last week, Conforti could not recall from whom the museum bought the piece, which he described as a "rather grand object," but he said the museum wanted it "to support the teaching mission of the institution."
One figure on the vase -- a young woman holding a child satyr on her shoulders -- is apparently unique among surviving Greek vases, according to the museum's label. It is essentially the same image that appears in a photo seized by Italian police.
Museums now tend do much more thorough research before acquiring an object than they did in the past, Griswold said. "But even in the 1980s, if there was suspicion that an object was excavated, it would not have been acquired."
On Friday, Italian authorities seeking seven objects they believe rightfully belong to Italy requested meetings with officials at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They also claim that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has more than 30 such items and that there are two each in New Jersey's Princeton University Art Museum and Virginia's Richmond Museum of Fine Art. In Ohio, art museums in Cleveland and Toledo are said to have one each.
... a photo of the object accompanies the original article. Meanwhile, I'm still digesting some of the implications of an excellent article at Scoop on the role of Robert Hecht in all of this (a name which hasn't really been brought up much in US coverage)