$20 million worth of looted art returns to Italy from the U.S.

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Thursday, June 20, 2024

$20 million worth of looted art returns to Italy from the U.S.
Wilson Delgado photograph of the Collegio Romano, taken in 2003.

ROME.- Taken together, the five dozen ancient artifacts displayed at Italy’s culture ministry Monday would have made a fine archaeological centerpiece for any museum.

The items, dating from the seventh century B.C. to the first century A.D., included well-preserved marble statues, red-figure vases, a silver drinking bowl, even rare bronzes. The artifacts, worth more than $20 million, according to the Italian culture ministry, were back on Italian soil after having been seized in the United States by American officials over the past 14 months.

Twenty-one of the works had been on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as well as in private homes and auction houses, before being recovered by U.S. officials, who acted on evidence that they had been illegally looted from archaeological sites in Italy.

Gennaro Sangiuliano, Italy’s culture minister, said Monday during a celebratory news conference that the recovered artifacts were the “fruit of a collaboration,” between Italian and American law enforcement officials, that would not end with these 60 works.

Italy has fought for decades to quash the trade in illicitly excavated artifacts, and strenuous negotiations forged deals for the return of dozens of works with several American museums, notably the Met and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Its efforts have picked up steam in recent years thanks to developments in technology, including easily consulted online databases and improved collaboration with American officials, and in particular the Manhattan’s district attorney’s office.

Culture ministry officials presented two works Monday: a marble head of Athena, dated circa 200 B.C. and valued at $3 million, and a white-ground terra-cotta kylix, or drinking cup, attributed to the Villa Giulia Painter, dating to the fifth century B.C. and valued at $1.5 million. According to a search warrant, the artifacts were seized in July from the Metropolitan Museum along with 19 other works, many on show Monday.

At the time of the seizure, the museum said in a statement that it had fully cooperated with the district attorney’s investigation and that its acquisition reviews have become more rigorous over the years.

“The norms of collecting have changed significantly in recent decades,” the museum said, “and The Met’s policies and procedures in this regard have been under constant review over the past 20 years.”

Among the items returned was a fresco depicting the infant Hercules strangling a snake, which dates to the first century. It is believed to have been looted from Herculaneum, a settlement buried in the Vesuvian eruption of 79 A.D., and decades ago was tracked by investigators to the apartment of Michael H. Steinhardt, a prominent New York venture capitalist and a major ancient art collector. In 2021, after investigators seized 180 stolen antiquities valued at $70 million from Steinhardt, he agreed to a lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities.

The Italian government made a first request for the fresco in 1997, but it was only after the Manhattan district attorney’s office became involved in the investigation that the fresco was returned to Italy.

“With the help of friends in this room, we seized it in a matter of months,” said Matthew Bogdanos, chief of the district attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, acknowledging the successful collaboration with Italy’s art theft police that has returned hundreds of objects in recent months.

As a criminal prosecutor, Bogdanos later explained, he was not bound by the international treaties that had been used in the past to negotiate the return of allegedly looted artifacts.

“The old laws only benefit bad guys,” he said. “The bad guys operate at the speed of bandwidth, and we have to do the same; that’s why we operate outside the civil negotiating legal bureaucratic process.”

Bogdanos said that under his watch, officials had executed 75 raids involving Italian antiquities and recovered some 500 artifacts valued at more than $55 million.

Also included in the returned pieces was a piece called “Bronze Bust of Man,” dating to the first century B.C., that Bogdanos said was seized from the collection of Shelby White, a philanthropist, Met trustee and board member. The Art Newspaper reported the seizure in December.

Now that they have been returned to Italy, several of the artifacts will join other repatriated works in an exhibit at a new museum dedicated to recovered art that opened in Rome in the summer.

Then they will be relocated to museums near the ancient sites they are believed to have been looted from “because their identity is linked to that of their community,” said Gen. Vincenzo Molinese, head of the Italy’s carabinieri art theft squad.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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