Monday 16 September 2013

The Vanished Cameo Glass Vase

When a rare Roman glass vase emerged in 2009, it was big news in the art world – until the vessel vanished (Alastair Sooke, 'The mystery of the ancient glass masterpiece', BBC News 16 September 2013). Unearthing a cameo glass vessel as fine as the Portland Vase, is exceptionally rare, so when Bonhams auction house in London released photographs of a privately owned Roman cameo glass vessel four years ago, it was a big deal. The new vase was massive and had a number of figures in two friezes. Everyone concurs it was very important.
So where is this masterpiece of ancient art today – and why is it not on display in one of the world’s great museums? According to Bonhams, who say that it was never for sale, the vase, which is broken, was consigned for study, restoration and “public exposure” before being returned to its owner. Its provenance is unknown, but, according to experts, the consignor was the daughter of a dead European collector, who was given the vase by an Italian friend soon after the Second World War. However, several experts I have spoken to suggest that the story behind the vase is murkier and more complicated.
There were of course suggestions that with such a vague and unverifiable collecting history, the object could be a fake. As Sooke notes helpfully, "of course, the antiquities market is plagued with fakes". Most experts who have handled it however agree that the object is a real antiquity.
After the vase had been studied at the British Museum, there were plans to send it to Cardiff University for scientific analysis. Before it could get there, though, rumours began to emerge that it had been discovered recently in North Africa, and that it was broken when it was found. It even appeared that the vase had been damaged permanently within the past decade – a botched attempt at restoration, perhaps, or, more sinisterly, a sneaky way of passing off a recent restoration as something older, so that the vase would appear authentic. With its provenance in question (for instance, nobody could prove the existence of the shadowy Italian, supposedly a well-to-do family friend who had given it to the consignor’s father), the vase, which could be worth millions of pounds at auction, was quietly returned to its owner. [...] The vase now languishes in unsellable limbo. Its whereabouts are unknown, although amongst experts there is a whisper that it is hidden away in a bank vault in Brussels.
See also: 'Roman vase dating back 2,000 years 'virtually priceless' says Bonhams', Telegraph 14 Oct 2009. There is also an interesting account on Caroline Lawrence's blog ('A Mysterious Roman Vase', Wednesday, October 14, 2009) including some interesting "Clues that the Bonham's Vase might be real" versus "Clues that it might be a fake". )

Update Sept 2022:
A well-placed source has told me that some information about this item has been passed to US Homeland Security and Algeria’s lawyer - "I just found out that the vase was subsequently offered to the Getty. And went to California for inspection. They passed on it". 

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