A Trove of Artifacts Officials Call ‘Stolen’ Are Returned to Italy

From the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, they seized a 2,500-year-old wine cup and six other items that long predated Caesar. From Fordham University in the Bronx, they took roughly a hundred Greco-Roman artifacts valued at $2 million. More antiquities were seized from museums in San Antonio and Cleveland and galleries and homes in New York City and Long Island.

All told, the Manhattan district attorney’s office has quietly confiscated 160 objects tied to one man, Edoardo Almagià, a 70-year-old Rome-based antiquities dealer who is accused in court papers of a three-decade-long smuggling spree.

On Wednesday, 150 Almagià items, and 50 more linked to other suspected traffickers, were ceremoniously delivered to the Italian consulate in New York in what officials say is the largest single repatriation of relics from America to Italy. The value of the 200 returned items — which include painted jars and ornate vessels, marble busts and ceramic figurines — was put at $10 million.

“For years, prestigious museums and private collectors across the United States prominently displayed these Italian historical treasures even though their very presence in America constituted evidence of cultural heritage crimes,” the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said in a statement.

Brig. Gen. Roberto Riccardi, of a cultural heritage unit of the Carabinieri, Italy’s national military police force, who flew in to take possession of the items, said that statutes of limitations had made it very difficult for Italy to prosecute Mr. Almagià. “What is most important,” he said, “is that these very important archaeological findings come back that are part of our culture identity.”

Investigators said that the individuals and institutions that held the items surrendered them willingly after being told of Mr. Almagià’s involvement. Most had purchased the items from intermediaries who had obtained them from Mr. Almagià, a Princeton graduate who lived in New York, and sold artworks there, from 1980 to 2006.

Speaking about the forfeitures of the objects, Matthew Bogdanos, the assistant district attorney who leads the office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, said: “To their credit, every person and organization we’ve dealt with so far regarding Almagià has agreed with us that we are correct — the items were stolen property.”

A pithos from the 7th century, taken from the Getty Museum.Credit…via Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

Mr. Almagià — who is under investigation for, among other things, illegally transporting hundreds of Italian artifacts into the United States and filing false customs documents — at once denied the allegations against him and discounted any import violations as insignificant in an animated telephone interview.

“There are thousands of items that travel around the world without papers, and they are only asking for papers now, and in the past they never had such requirements,” Mr. Almagià said, referring to the trade in Roman-era antiquities, which is severely regulated under Italian law and under longstanding agreements between Italy and the United States.

“Why are they doing this now, I wonder,” he said, adding: “So much money is being spent to persecute dealers when it can be used to repair Italian museums, where so many similar items are already at risk.”

Mr. Almagià has been investigated on and off by Italian and American authorities for decades. A chronology of his legal entanglements, dating back to at least 1996, was included in court papers released earlier this month related to the case of the billionaire Michael H. Steinhardt, who surrendered 180 stolen objects, 10 of which were sold to him by Mr. Almagià.

In 2000, Mr. Almagià was stopped at Kennedy Airport with two frescoes stolen from the Roman town of Herculaneum, the papers said. In 2006, the year he left the United States, federal agents raided his East 78th Street apartment. As a result, he relinquished six items there that were later declared illicit.

And in 2012, an Italian court acquitted him of directing the looting of ancient Roman and Etruscan tombs. The court, however, upheld the confiscation of all relics in his possession and said his dealings had contributed to “one of the greatest sacks of Italian cultural heritage based on the sheer amount of stolen goods” he handled.

Asked about his past brushes with the law, Mr. Almagià said: “I sold things from Italy, definitely yes. There are objects in U.S. museums that are undoubtedly stolen from excavations but when they are not objects of the greatest importance, I think they should remain there so they can be appreciated by American visitors.”

This case and other recent actions, like the Steinhardt seizures, show that Mr. Bogdanos’s unit is reaching far back in time and across state lines to confiscate objects. The seizures, Mr. Bogdanos said, are warranted by a state statute that lets prosecutors return stolen property to its “rightful owners” regardless of when or where they were stolen, and because New York was “the locus of conspiracy.”

All four of the museums involved in the case said that after reviewing the district attorney’s evidence, they decided to voluntarily give up their Almagià-related items.

Hardest hit was the Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art at Fordham University, which surrendered close to a hundred of the 260 items donated in 2007 by a single alumnus, William D. Walsh, who died in 2013 and was unaware of their checkered provenance, investigators said. His collection comprised Greco-Roman items dating at least as far back as 700 B.C. and included world-class examples of portraiture and pottery.

His donation, and about 40 subsequent gifts, allowed the university to set up a free museum and a teaching and research institution devoted to studying ancient Mediterranean art. One of the seized objects, a 19-inch-high terra-cotta hydria, or water jar, depicting the deeds of Hercules, appeared on the cover of the museum’s 2012 catalog.

In a statement, Fordham called the seizures and repatriation an “appropriate action.”

“Since Fordham received the antiquities in 2007,” the statement added, “it has been transparent regarding the objects’ provenance or lack thereof, including the publication of a catalog in 2012, in part so that other researchers had full access to the relevant information about the collection. The University still has more than 200 antiquities in its collection, which will be reorganized to optimize their use in Fordham’s teaching museum.”

The Getty said in a statement: “Most of the objects being deaccessioned were accepted as gifts to the Getty 25 years ago. Whenever new information about the provenance of objects comes to the attention of Getty, we conduct a thorough review and return objects if warranted by those new findings.”

The San Antonio Museum of Art, which gave up five Greco-Roman jars and plates and a group of pottery fragments, said: “We are pleased that the District Attorney has formally announced that the objects will now be returned to the government of Italy. We will continue to work actively to remedy any legitimate ownership claims of which the museum becomes aware.” The Cleveland Museum of Art also said it accepted the validity of the seizure of three items purchased directly from Mr. Almagià in the mid-1990s.

Mr. Bogdanos said he expected further seizures and court proceedings as a result of the Almagià case. He said a potential extradition would be difficult, but added that “there are many other museums with Almagià items around the country.”

Related Articles

Back to top button