More stolen archaeological treasures return to Italy from the US

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A haul of over 200 archaeological treasures, including Etruscan vases and ancient Roman coins, has been returned to Italy from the United States in the latest round of repatriations between the two countries. The looted artefacts, many of which were seized by the Manhattan district attorney’s office earlier this year, include an Apulian krater dating from 335 BC.

A statement issued 11 August by the Italian Carabinieri’s stolen art unit says that “the returned cultural assets were identified in the US, the illegal origin of which was unequivocally demonstrated by the investigative activities of the Carabinieri who, in collaboration with the Manhattan public prosecutor’s office, obtained their seizure and [secured the objects’] return to our country”. The works had been sold to US museums and private collectors in the 1990s, the BBC says.

Crucially the statement adds that 65 looted artefacts were “already in the collection of the Menil Collection in Houston”. The Menil Collection has denied this. According to the Associated Press, the museum said a collector approached it in 2022 about donating the artefacts; a curator subsequently directed the collector to the Italian culture minister “who alerted the museum that Italy was claiming the objects”.

Tommy Napier, a spokesperson for the collection, said: “The Menil Collection declined these works from the collector and they have never been part of the museum’s collection.” The museum, founded in 1987 by the collectors John and Dominique de Menil, was contacted for further comment.

The Carabinieri statement also says that “70 lots [returned], consisting of a total of 145 pieces, [are] part of the bankruptcy procedure against the British citizen Robin Symes, located thanks to the investigations conducted by the Carabinieri”.

Earlier this year Italy recovered a haul of 750 archaeological artefacts with an estimated value of €12m following a lengthy legal battle with the disgraced dealer Symes. The objects were returned to Rome following a 17-year legal battle resulting in a negotiation with the liquidators of Symes Ltd signed on 11 May. Symes’ lawyers could not be reached for comment.

The flow of looted works between the US and Italy is gaining momentum. Sixty archaeological artefacts reportedly looted from sites around Italy—including a fresco taken from Herculaneum and bronze busts—were repatriated in January with much fanfare. Some of the objects were purchased by the billionaire collector Michael Steinhardt, while more than 20 items were also in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, including a marble Head of Athena, dating from 200BC.

But Gianfranco Adornato, a professor of Greek and Roman art and archaeology at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, says that a high percentage of the 60 works, valued collectively at more than $20m, is “made up of easily recognisable fakes”.

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