Fantastic voyage

Image of Helen Hall and the vase

Helen Hall holds the Cypriot lagynos. Credit: Muse Magazine

By Dr Craig Barker

Many of the items in the collections of Sydney University Museums came to Australia in circuitous and unusual circumstances. Perhaps one of the oddest stories is that of the ancient Cypriot lagynos, which found its way here through the power of an overheard conversation, and the generosity of a New York social institution.

The lagynos was an ancient vase shape popular in the Hellenistic era. It has a low, squat body, a vertical neck with a rounded mouth, and a single strap handle. Effectively, the lagynos was a wine decanter, each one likely used for a specific banqueting feast associated with a particular festival. They were either produced as coarse ceramic containers or covered with a white or creme slip and decorated with highly painted designs, such as the fish pattern around the shoulder of our vase, pictured below.

Lagynoi were manufactured in numerous centres across the eastern Mediterranean (including Paphos in Cyprus), but are most closely associated with the Ptolemies dynasty ruling from the ancient city of Alexandria in Egypt. The vessels appear to have been associated with the lagnyophoria festival at Alexandria and the spread of the use of the vase may indicate the spread of the practice of the festival.

The Nicholson’s lagynos was manufactured between the late third and first century BC, probably in Cyprus. Its precise provenance is not known, but it is likely to have been buried in a Hellenistic period grave on Cyprus. What is known about the vase is that it ended up in the hands of a New York antiquities dealer in the early 1950s. So far, nothing unusual. But this is where the Australian connection begins.

The vase was purchased because of a conversation overhead by a member of the Henry Street Settlement’s Board of Directors in 1952. The settlement, founded in 1893 by progressive reformer Lilian Wald, is a not-for-profit social service agency in the lower east side of Manhattan, providing social services, arts programs and health care for around 50,000 New Yorkers annually. Among its many historic achievements were the building of the first children’s playgrounds in New York City in 1902, and a music school in 1927. In 1933, Helen Hall (1892–1982), succeeded Wald as director. Hall rallied to create a mental health clinic and family day camps for the organisation and spearheaded programs for the impoverished elderly, all described in her 1971 autobiography, Unfinished Business in Neighbourhood and Nation.

During the Great Depression she wrote several articles on unemployment, served on President Franklin Roosevelt’s Committee on Economic Security, and during both wars she served in the American Red Cross. During the Second World War, Helen Hall was stationed in Australia and the South Pacific. She developed service clubs and rest homes for US soldiers and relished the chance to touch the lives of “lonely and wounded men.” In a letter sent to the then Nicholson Museum curator, Professor AD Trendall, dated 1 July 1952, she wrote of how fond she grew of Australia while serving here during the war. “I received such friendly cooperation at every turn.”

Image of Cypriot lagynos

The ancient Cypriot lagynos, now at the Nicholson Museum. Credit: Muse Magazine


In early 1952, an Australian visitor at a Henry Street musical party casually remarked “how much she knew officials of the [Nicholson] museum would covet a vase she had seen in an antique shop, but how impossible it would be for her to buy it.”

The vase was the lagynos from Cyprus. By chance the comment was overheard by Henry Street Board member and businessman, Winslow Carlton(1907–94). Carlton went out and bought the vase the next morning. He gave it to Helen Hall in order that she might present it to the Nicholson Museum to commemorate her fondness for Australia and her memories of time spent in Sydney. Arrangements were made with the Australian government to transport the vase to Sydney. The Nicholson Archives has a photograph of Helen Hall presenting the vase to the Australian Consul-General, LieutenantGeneral EK Smart, in New York

The vase arrived in Sydney on 20 August 1952. Despite the official involvement of the diplomatic services, the transition wasn’t an easy one. Lieutenant General Sir Iven Mackay (1882–1966), one-time University of Sydney lecturer in physics, and commander of the 6th Division of the Australian Army, was to have carried the vase back to Australia in his personal baggage except he was over his weight limit. The vase was air freighted to Australia on American Airlines, but as the charge of US$57.28 was too large for the Australian Department of External Affairs to cover, the University had to send a cheque to the Collector of Public Monies in Canberra.

At long last, the vase completed its roundabout journey from the island of Cyprus to the University of Sydney. It was presented to the Vice-Chancellor Professor Stephen Roberts in a small ceremony on 3 October 1952 by Miss Aileen Fitzpatrick, Director of the Australian Council for International Social Service, on behalf of Miss Hall. Photographs of the occasion were sent to New York. Helen Hall wrote to Professor Trendall to describe how glad she was that the vase arrived in one piece. “It would have seemed so ironic to have had it break after two thousand years! I hardly drew a long breath while it was at Henry Street.”

The vase was displayed in the Nicholson Museum with a note reading: “Presented on behalf of the Henry Street Settlement of
New York, in recognition of the cooperation and hospitality given by the people of Australia to the headworker of the Settlement while serving with the American Red Cross, 1942-1943.”

After a period in storage, the lagynos is once again on display in the Cypriot exhibition Aphrodite’s Island: Australian archaeologists in Cyprus. It is a fitting testament to a remarkable New York institution, generous patrons, and the power of an overheard conversation.

Dr Craig Barker wishes to thank Ina Kerhberg for assistance with this article.