Italian Monsignor Michele Basso, a Vatican official who was once investigated by the Roman government for allegedly trying to sell counterfeit antiquities and paintings, died in early January, sparking renewed interest in his extensive art collection and how he came to acquire it.
Basso’s death has also raised questions about the Euphronios Krater, a 2,500-year-old vase Etruscan vase that was once the property of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was later repatriated to Italy in 2008. The Monsignor had a copy of the krater in his collection that, according to Il Messaggero, may give the Met an opportunity to demand the vase be returned.
The Met purchased the vase in 1972 from the antiquities dealer Robert E. Hecht for $1.3 million. Shortly the acquisition, the Italian government, suspecting that the vase had been looted from the Greppe Sant’Angelo area in December 1971 by “a gang of tomb robbers,” angled for it to come back, according to the New York Times.
However, the copy in Basso’s collection has been dated to the 19th century, which suggests the vase may have been excavated before 1909, the year Italy banned the export important cultural items. Some have even speculated that the vase in Basso’s collection could be the original krater. The Met did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether they plan to request the vase be returned.
Regardless of whether the museum will jockey for ownership of the vase, how Basso came to gather such an impressive collection of art is still in question, especially given the investigation into the supposed attempt to sell forgeries, of which he was cleared.
“He was not a rich industrialist, a prince or count. He was a man of extremely humble origins whose mother worked as a caretaker,” Franca Giansoldati, a journalist for Il Messaggero, told the Art Newspaper. Giansoldati added that during a 2021 interview, Basso claimed to have been given the works by “generous people.” According to an interview published in Corriere della Sera, Basso’s lawyer, Lorenzo Contrada, claimed the Monsignor had been “offered as gifts by other prelates who had received them in turn from worshippers without heirs.”
The fraud investigation was closed, and Basso was not charged with any crimes. In 2020, he donated his entire collection, which is said to comprise of around 70 pieces ranging from paintings to sculpture to antiquities, to the organization responsible for restoring St. Peter’s Basilica, the Fabbrica di San Pietro.
In 2021, when asked by an Il Messaggero journalist how he came to gather such an impressive collection, Basso reportedly said, “It’s like having a lot of shoes in your closet. Some of them were bought, others were gifts.”
According to Ill Messaggero, Pope Frances ordered an investigation into the management of Fabbrica di San Pietro two years ago, but it is unclear whether Basso’s donations would fall into the investigation’s purview.