US Returns 600 Looted Antiquities Worth $65 M. to Italy

On Tuesday, Italy officially welcomed 600 antiquities from the United States, worth a collective $65 million, that were looted years ago and scattered in the holdings of museums, galleries, and collectors. The trove includes ancient gold coins, mosaics, manuscripts, and bronze statues, all of which were recovered during an extensive criminal investigation.

The items were presented to Italy’s Carabinieri police force by several US representatives: ambassador Jack Markell; Matthew Bogdanos, head of the antiquities trafficking unit of the New York District Attorney’s Office; and several members of the US Homeland Security investigations department.

In a statement, Markell said that the US government was committed to returning loot “to where it belongs” and views Tuesday’s handoff as a signal of its respect for Italy’s cultural heritage.

“We know that safeguarding this history requires care and vigilance, and this is why we do what we do,” he said.

As first noted by the Guardian, missing from the artifacts repatriated was Victorious Youth, a classical Greek bronze statue at the center of a decades-long litigious dispute between Italy and the Getty Museum based in California. In 2018, Italy’s top court, the Court of Cassation, ruled that the work must be returned to Italy. At the time of the ruling, a spokesperson for the Getty said museum leadership would “continue to defend [its] legal right to the statue,” and cited a prior court decision that found “no evidence of Italian ownership.”

Bogdanos and homeland security officials said in a statement that the statue is part of an ongoing investigation.

Among the oldest repatriated artifacts are several Etruscan vases, a life-sized bronze figure, and bronze heads, all dating from the 9th century BCE to the second century. Other returned works include oil paintings from the 16th and 19th centuries variably looted from Italian museums, religious institutions, and private residences.

One of the most valuable pieces of the lot was a 4th-century Naxos silver coin featuring the Greek god of wine, Dionysius, nabbed from an illegal excavation site in Sicily sometime around 2013 and trafficked into the United Kingdom. According to Bogdanos, the coin was discovered as part of an investigation into a British coin dealer, who had offered it for sale for $500,000.

“Looting is local,” Bogdanos said, as locals “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.”

He added: “Our job is to minimize it, increase the risk to those who would engage in this traffic, convict them and where appropriate, sentence them.”

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