In December 2021, the Manhattan district attorney’s office repatriated 200 antiquities and other art objects to Italy. They had been confiscated from major museums and collections, and they represent the largest single repatriation of relics from America to Italy. They include a pithos, which is a large terracotta storage jar form the 7th century B.C., along with other items from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles; a hydria, or water jar, depicting the deeds of Hercules, from Fordham University in the Bronx; and other antiquities seized from museums in San Antonio and Cleveland and from galleries and homes in New York City and on Long Island.
About 80% of the items are tied to one man, Edoardo Almagià, now a Rome-based antiquities dealer. A Princeton graduate, Mr. Almagià lived and sold artwork in New York from 1980 to 2006. He has been investigated for decades by Italian and American authorities for, among other things, illegally transporting hundreds of Italian artifacts into the United States and filing false customs documents. His legal entanglements date back to at least 1996. In 2000 he was stopped at Kennedy Airport with two frescoes stolen from Herculaneum; in 2006, the year he left the United States, federal agents raided his New York apartment; he relinquished 6 items that were later declared illicit. In Italy he has been investigated for looting ancient Roman and Etruscan tombs.
The individuals and institutions that purchased the stolen art did so through intermediaries who had obtained them from Mr. Almagià. The museums and collectors claim that they did not know the items had been stolen, and herein lies the problem, according to Matthew Bogdanos, a prosecutor who heads the Antiquities Trafficking Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. Willful ignorance—the “ostrich defense” as Bogdanos calls it—is tantamount to guilt he says. In other words, if dealers and buyers failed to make a reasonable inquiry into an object’s true ownership, they were presumed to know it was stolen.
Mr. Bogdanos has an interesting past. He grew up busing tables at his parents’ Greek restaurant in Kips Bay on the lower east side of Manhattan. His mother, a waitress at the family restaurant, gave Matthew, at the age of 12, a copy of The Iliad to encourage pride in his Greek heritage. He read voraciously Homer’s epic, often in a closet during his parents’ sometimes violent fights. After earning a law degree at Columbia University, he stayed on for a master’s in classics.
Now a retired Marine colonel, Bogdanos was recalled to active duty after 9/11. Originally tasked with improving security at the Kabul airport, he became incensed in 2003 when looters sacked Iraq’s national museum, which housed irreplaceable artifacts from the cradle of civilization. Bogdanos put together a team and recovered thousands of antiquities across Iraq, which he published in a memoir called Thieves of Baghdad. When he returned to the United States and to the Manhattan DA’s Office as a homicide prosecutor, he began lobbying to establish a task force to investigate and prosecute antiquities theft and trafficking.
Finally, in 2017, Cyrus Vance Jr, the DA, announced the formation of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit, the only unit in the world led by a prosecutor. Bogdanos shows no mercy to the enclave of old-money families, museums and auction houses he investigates even when the politics are delicate, as they are with collectors who have reputations as public benefactors. Is there any leniency for these folks who have never seen the inside of a jail cell? “I wouldn’t do that for a drug dealer on 155th Street or a gunrunner on 187th Street.” He takes the same hard line in the “genteel” world of antiquities trade.
The DA’s office has returned more than 1,300 antiquities to their homelands: a marble sarcophagus fragment to Greece, a Buddha’s footprint to Pakistan, and a first-century mosaic from a ship in the emperor Caligula’s fleet…one of the 200 returned to Italy in 2021.