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Morgantina loan deal loses its sheen

Sicily wants to renegotiate “one-sided” agreement hammered out in 2006 between the Met and Italy over restituted treasure

When the Met returned the Morgantina silver to Italy it expected to display it again this year

Will pieces of Morgantina silver return to New York from Sicily this year? The clock is ticking to renegotiate the deal struck in 2006 between the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Italian government and the regional government of Sicily that should, in theory, mean the remarkable collection of ancient Greek silver and silver gilt-artefacts return on loan to the Met this year for four years.

Sicily, which has the power to make its own rules about its heritage, wants to “rebalance” the deal, which it feels is “one-sided”, says Mariarita Sgarlata, the island’s highest cultural official.

The Met purchased 15 pieces of Hellenistic silver in 1981 and 1982 for around $2.7m, believing they possibly came from Turkey. The Met restituted the silver to Italy because of evidence that the wine bowls, drinking vessels, medallions and helmet horns had, in fact, been recently looted from the site of Morgantina near Aidone in central Sicily. The late antiquities dealer Robert Hecht profited from the illicit trade of the silver to the US via Switzerland.

The silver is now on show in the Museo Regionale di Aidone, near the site of Morgantina. Malcolm Bell, an archaeologist at the University of Virginia, who is the co-director of the Morgantina excavations and helped locate the possible site of the looting, says: “In retrospect it was a difficult agreement. From the point of view of any Sicilian, the absence of the silver in Aidone is much more apparent than it would be [to visitors] at the Met.”

The Met confirms that talks are in progress. A spokeswoman says: “The Metropolitan Museum is in communication with museum officials in Italy and we await word.” Last November the museum told the New York Times that it would review any proposal “with an open mind”.

Last year, Sicily drew up a list of art and artefacts that should not leave the island, which includes the silver. Mariarita Sgarlata, Sicily’s cultural assessor, says: “This created a serious problem given the previous international

agreement.” Ultimately the president of the island has the final say on what can be lent. Sgarlata says loans to the US need to be “fully reciprocated”. “When the silver is in Sicily, we organise an exhibition in America, according to the agreement, but when they’re over there the American institution is under no obligation at all to do the same for us.”

This month sees the eighth anniversary of the original agreement. The Met declined to say whether it would accept loans of alternative artefacts. “We don’t have anything further to add at this point,” a spokeswoman says. Bell thinks that a new deal is likely. “It’s in everyone’s interest that this is resolved,” he says. He would prefer Sicily or Italy to send different artefacts to the Met “honouring the spirit of the old agreement”. The silver, he says, “should not be treated like a tennis ball”.

The artefacts are especially remarkable because we know the name of its last owner in antiquity: a citizen of Morgantina called Eupolemos who, when the city was about to be captured by the Roman army, buried the silver in the basement of a house, probably his own.

Additional reporting by Silvia Mazza

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