Antiquities Recovered in Rome

Italian authorities announced on Friday they had recovered over a dozen antiquities hidden in a boat garage near Fiumicino, which is very near Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci airport. The AP report indicated:

The most spectacular find was a marble head of Lucius Verus, a portrait of the emperor who co-ruled Rome from 161 until his death in 169 alongside his adoptive brother, Marcus Aurelius.

The bearded visage of the emperor is believed to have been secretly dug out at a site in the Naples area and was probably destined for the international market, said Capt. Massimo Rossi, of a special police unit that hunts down archaeological thieves.

No arrests have been made, but 13 people are being investigated for allegedly trafficking in antiquities, Rossi said.

The announcement also indicated another recovery:

In a separate operation, Italy recovered a marble head depicting Faustina, the wife of the Emperor Antoninus Pius, the predecessor and adoptive father of Lucius Verus and Marcus Aurelius, police said in a statement.

Faustina’s portrait had been stolen in 1961 from an ancient theater in Minturno, south of Rome, and made its way to an American collector. The statue was returned by the collector through U.S. authorities after he realized it had been looted, Rossi said.

This strikes me as the more interesting announcement. It strikes me as odd, and is more indication of the means Italy has used to recover objects. They really have capitalized on this tide of repatriation from North America, and have secured a number of secondary returns, without having to resort to costly international litigation. The legal claims for this portrait, apparently illegally excavated in 1961, would have probably been expensive and time-consuming, and likely quit difficult. It is interesting the success Italy has had by eschewing litigation, and pointing out (rightly so) of the damage done to contextual information.

It seems a bit odd though that we do not learn of the collector, how she acquired the object, or who the dealer was who sold it. At a certain point, it may be worth asking the Italian authorities where all these recovered objects are going to be studied or displayed, and if these “repatriation exhibitions” will serve to decrease illegal excavation and export, or merely serve to display some drugs on the table. Perhaps this display does give heart to the authorities and heritage advocates, however these gains also provide other political benefits; and may provide an distorted image of the effectiveness of Italian and international efforts. After all, even well-known sites are being damaged in the heart of Rome.

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In the News

I saw a couple of noteworthy items in the papers this morning.

First, there was an interesting note of a legal event held in London last week. Edward Fennell of the Times Online in his “In the City” feature talked about this event:

Last week Withers hosted one of the most curious legal events I have ever attended. In a gripping account to a smart multinational audience of art professionals, insurers and well-heeled collectors the firm’s art recovery expert, partner Pierre Valentin told how he helped to recover paintings from the Bakwin collection that had been stolen in America in the 1970s.

Working with the Art Loss Register (which operates in that seductive area where culture and money meet glamour and crime) Mr Valentin described a Hitchcock-like thriller featuring painstaking research, dodgy Russians and even murder – but all ending in happy success for the resolute legal sleuth. As the tale unfolded we could see on display the very “McGuffin” that had driven the drama – the collection of paintings themselves by Cézanne, Matisse, Soutine, Vlaminck By the end of an astonishing evening Withers had proved itself a true ornament to the City’s legal scene.

I take it Whithers must be a firm of Solicitors. Sounds like some fascinating stories. I do not know about this particular case, but I am familiar with Pierre Valentin. It sounds fascinating. Here is hoping he makes it up to Scotland.

Second, I noticed an AP story by Ariel David which has been picked up by a number of papers in recent weeks. I haven’t noted it before but it is an interesting story of the notorious tombaroli Pietro Casasanta who has testified at the True/Hecht trial and Rome. Here is an excerpt:

It used to be so easy for the “tombaroli,” Italy’s tomb raiders.

Pietro Casasanta had no Indiana Jones-type escapes from angry natives or booby-trapped temples. He worked undisturbed in daylight with a bulldozer, posing as a construction worker to become one of Italy’s most successful plunderers of archaeological treasures.

When he wasn’t in prison, the convicted looter operated for decades in this countryside area outside Rome, benefiting from what he says was lax surveillance that allowed him to dig into ancient Roman villas and unearth statues, pottery and other artifacts, which he then sold for millions of dollars on the illegal antiquities market.

“Nobody cared, and there was so much money going around,” he recalled. “I always worked during the day, with the same hours as construction crews, because at night it was easier to get noticed and to make mistakes.”

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