The most beautiful vase in the world: the Assteas crater sold for a pig

by Federico Quagliuolo

He was nicknamed "the most beautiful vase in the world”For the refinement of his drawings and for the almost magnetic fascination he exerts on the spectator who finds himself in front of the gigantic vase of the Rape of Europe, more than 70 centimeters tall. This is the Assteas crater preserved in archaeological museum of Sannio di Montesarchio.

Its story begins with a tragicomic adventure: it was discovered underground during a sewer work and it was sold on the black market for a million lire and a pig.

An incredible story told by the scholar and writer Aniello Troiano, who has them dedicated a book.

Cratere di Assteas
The Assteas crater and the author's signature

Assteas, the ceramic superstar

There aren't many potters from the past that much Like this famous for their name. Instead, Assteas's signature matched that of Dölker in Vietri in terms of fame and prestige: the artist was originally from Paestum and lived around the fourth century BC We have many of his vases scattered in the museums of Campania and they are immediately distinguished thanks to the signature Ασστέας ἔγραϕε.

We know that he became, at the end of his career, a real one business owner, following the example of the various workshops that were opened throughout Magna Graecia: in fact, he managed a small factory of craters and other ceramic objects, produced by his very active students. Today we are lucky enough to be able to boast more than 24, many of these in Italy.

The peculiarity of the Assteas vases is the obsession for symmetries: the figures are drawn with very simple strokes, yet still rich in details.

We know that the Assteas crater was produced in Paestum, the ancient Poseidonia, and was brought to Saticula, an ancient Samnite city that stood in the place of the current Sant'Agata dei Goti. Here it was probably used for pouring wine. Then, being very dear to its owner, it was also used as funeral equipment.

Cratere di Assteas
The Assteas Crater, the most beautiful vase in the world

An adventurous vessel

It all starts with one broken sewer and a subsidence of the land from the parts of Sant'Agata dei Goti. It was the 1972 and a worker, in the excavation work, is in his hands this crater in almost intact conditions: this is already an incredible event to say the least.

Decides not to report the discovery, as required by the Italian legislation, and takes it home to clean it in an artisanal way and, finally, he takes some Polaroids. It's time to figure out how monetize.

A friend advises him the Naples market, with a mysterious antique dealer which rewards him with a million lire (approx 8000€ considering inflation) and ... a pig. The worker is satisfied with the extra paycheck bonus, while the crater of Assteas begins a trip to Switzerland, to end up in the largest network of art traffickers in the world who, after having "cleaned up" the discovery, lo sells at the Getty Museum in Malibu, where is it remains on display from 1985 to 2005. Meanwhile, the vase begins to appear in all the most important publications in the History of Art sector. And this raises many questions among the representatives of the police, given the sudden appearance of such an important object.

Cratere di assteas polaroid
The famous polaroid of the worker with the Assteas crater. Source:

The intervention of the Carabinieri to bring the Assteas crater back to Italy

Galeotta was that polaroid. It was 1995 and a very powerful art dealer died in a fortuitous car accident. Following the investigation it was found in his possession an immense collection of photographs of stolen works of art in every part of the world. Among these, it happened a strange image: one polaroid rumpled with a man who "hugs" an ancient vase. It was precisely the Assteas Crater stolen 24 years earlier, but no one knew before then the illicit origin of the object. The finding was the basis of the investigation.

THE Carabinieri of the Protection of Cultural Heritage nucleus thus began a very long operation, which lasted more than 10 years, in which they were able to demonstrate the illicit origin of all transfers of works of art (as many as 67!), bringing back to Italy in 2007, among other things, the Assteas crater. After a tour of the main museums of the boot, today it is proudly shown in Archaeological Museum of Sannio and Valle Caudina by Montesarchio.

From the kidnapping depicted in the Rape of Europe scene to the theft of the crater of Assteas a Sant'Agata dei Goti. The adventure of this vessel it is a 2300 year old tale which, even today, continues to fascinate artists and art lovers. So much so that it was even produced a comic.

-Federico Quagliuolo

Aniello Troiano, "The Rape of Europe", history of the Assteas vase, Homo Scrivens, Naples, 2015’iconografia,vi%20%C3%A8%20una%20scena%20dionisiaca.
Anticae Viae documentary

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