At Large  May 29, 2024  Carlota Gamboa

The U.S. Returns $80 Million Worth of Stolen Artifacts to Italy

Wikimedia Commons, Carole Raddato

Roman sculptural fragments of Mithras Slaying the Bull, recovered by the Carabinieri art theft squad in Fiumicino, 2014. License

Around 600 antiquities, valued at an estimated $80 million, have been returned to Italy from the United States. The assortment of artifacts made their way into U.S. museums, galleries, and private collections through illicit excavations and looting. 

Coins, mosaics, manuscripts, and statues spanning from the 9th century BC to the 2nd century have been returned, as well as multiple oil paintings from the 16th to 19th centuries.

Head of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit in Manhattan’s district attorney’s office, Matthew Bogdanos stated that much of the looting is done locally, “They know when the security guards come on, they know when they come off. They know when the security guards are guarding particular sites and not others. They know when there are scientific, proper, approved archaeological excavations, and then they know when those archaeological excavations close, for example, for the winter or for lack of funding.”

Wikimedia Commons, Exekias

Coin of Naxos (Sicily). Circa 430-420 BC. Tetradrachm (Silver, 17.19 g 2), circa 425. License 

One of the most valuable items presented for return was a Naxos silver coin from the 4th century. The artifact, which features the face of Dionysius, was looted from an excavation site in Sicily, before appearing in the United Kingdom for $500,000 in 2013. This silver coin was located in New York last year, associated with another investigation into a known British coin dealer. 

Another impressive find was a mosaic floor depicting Orpheus playing the lyre from the mid-3rd century. The piece had been stolen from an excavation site in Sicily during the 1990s and was confiscated from the private collection of a New York collector. 

Wikimedia Commons, Dan Lundberg

Mosaic floor in the House of Orpheus depicts Orpheus charming exotic animals with his lyre. Morocco, 2015. License

Italy’s Culture Ministry and the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage mentioned that many of the items could be connected with well-documented art thefts and “tombaroli,” or tomb raids. 

The antique dealers that found themselves in possession of the historic objects often forged provenance records in order to sell the goods to auction houses and private buyers. General Francesco Gargaro, commander of the Carabinieri art squad, stated that 105,474 pieces with an estimated value of $287 million were seized in 2023 alone.

About the Author

Carlota Gamboa

Carlota Gamboa is an art writer based in Los Angeles.

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