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Looted antiquities: US vows more returns as Italy celebrates latest haul of 600 artifacts

Some 600 stolen works of art that where given back by the US to the Italian Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage are displayed in Rome - 28 May 2024
Some 600 stolen works of art that where given back by the US to the Italian Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage are displayed in Rome - 28 May 2024 Copyright Gregorio Borgia/AP
Copyright Gregorio Borgia/AP
By David MouriquandAP
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The latest presentation of looted goods in Rome is the fruits of Italy’s decades-old effort to recover antiquities stolen from its territory by tomb raiders.

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Italy has celebrated the return of around 600 antiquities from the US, including ancient bronze statues, gold coins, mosaics and manuscripts valued at €60 million. These valuable objects were looted years ago, sold to US museums, galleries and collectors and recovered as a result of criminal investigations.

US Ambassador Jack Markell, the head of the antiquities trafficking unit of the New York district attorney's office Matthew Bogdanos, and members of the US Homeland Security Investigations department were on hand for the presentation alongside the leadership of Italy’s Culture Ministry and Carabinieri art squad.

It was the latest presentation of the fruits of Italy’s decades-old effort to recover antiquities that were looted or stolen from its territory by “tombaroli” tomb raiders, sold to antiquities dealers who often forged provenance records in order to resell the loot to high-end buyers, auction houses and museums.

Some 600 stolen works of art that where given back by the US to the Italian Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage are displayed in Rome - 28 May 2024
Some 600 stolen works of art that where given back by the US to the Italian Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage are displayed in Rome - 28 May 2024Gregorio Borgia/AP

Last year, Italy also celebrated the restitution of 266 antiquities from the US, a collection encompassing Etruscan vases and ancient Roman coins and mosaics with an estimated value in the tens of millions of euros. These artefacts had also been illicitly looted.

Markell said that Washington was committed to returning the stolen loot “to where it belongs” as a sign of respect for Italy and its cultural and artistic heritage.

“We know that safeguarding this history requires care and vigilance, and this is why we do what we do,” he said, adding that the US was keeping a close eye on the latest target for art traffickers: Ukraine.

Looted antiquities on display in Rome
Looted antiquities on display in RomeGregorio Borgia/AP

Not included in the latest haul from the US was the “Victorious Youth” ancient Greek bronze statue, the object of a decades-long court battle between Italy and the Malibu, California-based Getty Museum.

The prized statue recently made headlines when the European Court of Human Rights strongly backed Italy's right to seize it, reaffirming that it had been illegally exported from Italy.

Bogdanos and Homeland Security officials declined to comment on whether or when the “Victorious Youth” might be returned, saying it's part of an ongoing investigation.

Looted antiquities from the US
Looted antiquities from the USGregorio Borgia/AP

Among the most valuable artifacts on display Tuesday (28 May) was a fourth-century Naxos silver coin depicting the god of wine Dionysius, a coin looted from an illicit excavation site in Sicily before 2013 and smuggled to the United Kingdom.

Bogdanos said the coin, which was being offered for sale for $500,000 (approx. €460,000), was found in New York last year as part of an investigation into a noted British coin dealer.

He said that other items were returned from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and some of the well-known New York philanthropists who donated artifacts to its collections that turned out to have been stolen.

From left: Matthew Bogdanos; Italian Culture Minister Undersecretary Gianmarco Mazzi; Italian Carabinieri General Massimo Mennitti and Francesco Cargaro
From left: Matthew Bogdanos; Italian Culture Minister Undersecretary Gianmarco Mazzi; Italian Carabinieri General Massimo Mennitti and Francesco CargaroGregorio Borgia/AP

Bogdanos, who forged an alliance with the Italian carabinieri art squad as they tried to recover Iraq’s stolen antiquities after the US invasion, said that Washington doesn’t distinguish between items taken during illicit excavations or those stolen in thefts: it all amounts to looting.

“Looting is local,” Bogdanos said. 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 archeological excavations, and then they know when those archaeological excavations close for example, for the winter or for lack of funding.”

Given that, he said, there will always be looting.

“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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