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The Manhattan District Attorney’s office has returned 14 looted artefacts to Italy, marking its fourth repatriation of antiquities to the country since July 2022. The objects, collectively worth nearly $2.5m, were recovered during multiple criminal investigations, which authorities say are ongoing. They were presented yesterday (2 February) in a ceremony attended by the Consulate General of Italy and investigators from the Italian Carabinieri, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and US Customs and Border Protection.
The artefacts include a fourth-century BCE silver coin known as the Sicily Naxos Coin, which features portraits of Dionysus and Silenus; a marble head of the Emperor Hadrian dating to 200 CE, until recently displayed at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA); and a black-figure water jar known as the Priam Painter Hydria. The vessel, which dates to 510 BCE, belonged to the collector Shelby White and was, until its seizure, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
“Italy’s rich history has long attracted looters and smugglers looking to profit from ancient artefacts without regard to the cultural history and the priceless value to the Italian people,” Ivan J. Arvelo, a special agent with HSI in New York, said in a statement. “These 2,600-year-old artefacts were part of life in the ancient world, especially the amphora which were viewed as lasting symbols of prowess and excellence.”
The District Attorney of New York’s office notes that the antiquities had been looted by several “high-profile antiquities traffickers and smugglers”, including the convicted dealers Giacomo Medici, Giovanni Franco Becchina and Robert Hecht. “These traffickers relied on gangs of tombaroli (tomb raiders) to loot carefully chosen and insufficiently guarded archaeological sites throughout the Mediterranean,” the office said in a statement. “After being looted, the traffickers would arrange for the pieces to be cleaned, restored and supplied with false provenance, before offering them for sale at auction houses and galleries around the world.”
For instance, the hydria attributed to the well-known artist known as the Priam Painter was looted by Becchina then smuggled and laundered by the Paris-based Hecht. Hecht, who died in 2012, then sold it to Shelby White in New York in 1989 with false provenance, according to investigators. A decade later, White loaned the hydria, currently valued at $900,000, to the Met, where she is a trustee and board member. Until its seizure, the hydria was on long-term display in the museum’s Department of Greek and Roman Art. White, who assisted and cooperated with the investigation, is also facing a separate investigation into her personal collection. Several objects, seized from her Manhattan home, were returned to Turkey and Italy in 2022.
The Met has since removed the hydria from its online collection, an erasure that ethics experts have criticised, saying that doing so continues to obscure the historical record.
This week’s repatriation also concludes the decades-long hunt for the Hadrian Head. In 1995, Italian law enforcement had found a Polaroid of the artefact “uncleaned and covered in marine encrustations”, the Manhattan DA’s office says, during a raid of the office and warehouse of Medici. Medici and his co-conspirators had smuggled the head out of Italy, and it was laundered with false provenance by the disgraced British antiquities dealer Robin Symes. In 1990, it was sold to Royal-Athena Galleries in New York and, in 1992, sold at Sotheby’s New York to the late San Antonio philanthropist Gilbert M. Denman Jr. In his bequest, Denman left it to SAMA, where he had been a trustee.
Investigators seized the head last year pursuant to an investigation into a trafficking network that operated in New York and around the world. SAMA, which the DA’s office says cooperated and assisted with investigations, retains a record of the head on its website. The artefact’s provenance entry includes a note that it was “deaccessioned in January 2022 for restitution to Italy”.
Officials have made at least one arrest related to this latest batch of returned artefacts. The individual was involved in efforts to smuggle a group of coins into New York, among them the Sicily Naxos Coin, and intercepted it at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The Sicily Naxos Coin first surfaced on the international art market in 2013, when an unidentified trafficker offered it for sale “with no provenance whatsoever”, the DA’s office says. A co-conspirator later supplied false provenance, after which it appeared at an unnamed London auction house. The coin is currently valued at $500,000.
The DA’s office has recovered and returned 214 stolen Italian antiquities, collectively valued at approximately $35m, in the past year. The largest trove of 142 antiquities was announced in July 2022, and 58 additional objects were presented in September. Dozens of these, some of which were seized from the Met and the collection of billionaire art collector Michael Steinhardt, were presented in Rome on 23 January.
In September 2022, a set of terracotta sculptures known as Orpheus and the Sirens was also formally repatriated to Italy after its seizure from the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. The work had been illegally excavated and had been on view at the Getty since it was acquired in 1976.