The Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage is Italy’s world-renowned police squad dedicated to recovering stolen art. Founded in 1969, it has tracked down and repatriated to Italy more than 3 million artifacts. Established in 2017, the Antiquities Trafficking Unit of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York has returned more than 1,300 antiquities to their homelands. Working together, these two crackerjack squads have repatriated enough stolen art from American museums and collectors to populate a new museum in Rome.
The Museum of Rescued Art opened in June 2022 in a hall that was built as part of the Baths of Diocletian and is annexed to and overseen by the National Roman Museum. Its first display, which runs through mid-October, includes 100 Etruscan, Greek and Roman figurines, statues, urns, plates and coins that date back to the eighth to fourth centuries B.C.E. They had been stolen from across Italy and smuggled into the United States. One artifact on display is a white-on-red pithos from the seventh century B.C.E. that depicts the blinding of Polyphemus, the one-eyed giant from Greek mythology and recounted in Homer’s Odyssey; it had been recovered from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Another notable piece is a marble bust of Roman emperor Septimus Severus, which had been stolen from an Italian museum in 1984 and was found decades later in New York just before going up for auction at Christie’s.
“Rescued Art” is a broad term, and the museum will eventually showcase the many ways in which artwork can be salvaged—not only from thieves, but also from the rubble of earthquakes, from ancient shipwrecks in the Mediterranean, and from the ravages of time by Italy’s expert restorers. The museum intends to “show the world the excellence of our work” in all these fields, says Dario Franceschini, Italy’s Culture Minister.
The policy of the Italian culture ministry has been to eventually return recovered artifacts to the museums closest to the site from which they had been most likely looted. Given the clandestine nature of the excavations by tombaroli, or tomb raiders, the re-homing process can be arduous for the team of archaeologists assigned to the task. Many of the prized pieces originally came from Cerveteri, an Etruscan town northwest of Rome, known for its well-preserved necropolis complex, and today for its archeological museum. The treasured Euphronius Krater will be displayed there; it had been looted from a Cerveteri tomb in 1971 and sold a year later to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $1 million, an unprecedented sum at that time. Joining the krater will be a kylix, or drinking cup, also by Euphronius, which the Getty Museum returned to Italy after evidence emerged of its murky provenance.
Returning artifacts to their original sites helps to place them in historical context. Cerveteri, for example, was an important Etruscan hub, a major market. Repatriated art gives local museums fresh opportunities to broaden their appeal. The Euphronius Krater has now become a symbol of the city itself.
The current works on display at the Museum of Rescued Art showcase the work of the art theft squads in both countries. Working on the evidence provided by the Carabinieri unit, the Antiques Trafficking Unit turned over 200 artifacts to Italy last December, the single largest repatriation from America to Italy. In July 2022, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office arranged for the return of 142 additional items, including the Ercolano Fresco, which had been stolen from Herculaneum, a town buried under volcanic ash after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.C.E. The joint endeavors from both countries will provide ongoing displays at the new museum in Rome, and possibly more importantly, thwart the black market in archaeological artifacts.
For more posts on this topic, see:
- The controversy of who owns the art of the world, October 2015
- Why are so many Italian masterpieces found outside of Italy? March 2017
- The statue of Zeus enthroned, July 2017
- The “Getty” Bronze, March 2019
- Stolen, Gestohlen, Rubato, April 2019
- Italy’s “Monuments Men,” August 2019
- Culture and criminality, May 2022