Tomb Raiders

Hercules Escapes—And Italy’s Closing In On More Looters

Italy’s heritage police were chasing a tiny stolen statuette for 50 years when it turned up in New York. It’s back in Rome, where even more lost treasures are now heading.

02.28.15 11:45 AM ET

ROME — On Jan. 7, 1964, a gang of thieves broke into the Archeological Museum of Oliveriano in Pesaro, Italy, a city on the Adriatic Sea about midway up the calf of Italy’s boot. They took dozens of ancient artifacts including coins, ninth-century tablets, glass vases from the catacombs in Rome, and a five-inch-tall Etruscan-era bronze statuette of Hercules wielding a club. Little Hercules soon appeared on what was then a largely uncontrolled market for stolen artifacts a few years later and ended up in the hands of a Swiss art dealer, who shuffled it off to a dealer in the United States who eventually sold it to Eugene V. Thaw, one of the world’s best-known art collectors. 

Two years ago, when Thaw and his wife and fellow arts benefactor, Claire E. Thaw, were getting rid of a few extra pieces of their expansive collection—including 135 oil paintings they donated to the Morgan Library Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art—they put it on the market again.  That’s when Italy’s cultural heritage cops called Pesaro prosecutor Maria Letizia Fucci, who contacted the FBI. Italy has a special unit of its heritage police who scour auction billboards around the world for potentially stolen goods.  When the Hercules statuette showed up, they knew right away it was the one that had been stolen from Pesaro more than 50 years ago. 

Fucci told The Daily Beast that it took two years to negotiate terms of its return, which included the promise never to prosecute any of the statuette’s owners. “We made a deal in good faith,” she said. “And Hercules is coming home.”

This week, little Hercules and an 18th-century Giambattista Tiepolo painting, The Holy Trinity Appearing to Saint Clement, were packed into a box in New York and shipped back to Rome. Richard Zabel, the deputy U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and Diego Rodriguez, assistant director of the New York field office of the FBI, held a farewell ceremony in Manhattan to mark the occasion. “These two works of art were stolen from their owners many decades ago and through shadowy channels arrived in the United States,” Zabel said as he symbolically handed over the loot to an Italian art-police officer who had come to repatriate the artifacts. “Both the Tiepolo painting and the Etruscan sculpture represent Italy’s rich cultural history and today will be returned to their homeland.”

In many ways, the two pieces also represent decades of covert work Italy and other nations with rich cultural heritage have dedicated to collecting their stolen history that has been scattered across the world.  The unbridled looting of Italy’s buried treasures before 1970 is one of the country’s darkest cultural chapters, when tomb raiders pillaged archeological sites like Pompeii and the Etruscan digs north of Rome.  Thousands of valuable artifacts were fished from the soil and sold to art dealers, who passed them on to private collectors and major museums.

A 1970 Unesco convention on cultural heritage exposed the illicit practice and established procedures for repatriating stolen goods. Many, like Hercules, that are known to have been stolen before the 1970s, eventually make their way back. Others that were acquired after the 1970 accord generally stay put on museum shelves and in private collectors’ trophy rooms.

Getty museum curator Marion True and her art dealer Robert Hecht stood trial in Rome in the mid-aughts on charges of dealing in stolen artifacts they allegedly bought after the 1970 accord. The case was eventually dropped due to statute-of-limitations loopholes, and Hecht died in 2012, but the prosecution triggered the return of dozens of artifacts. The Getty returned more than 40 items, including a statue thought to be of Aphrodite, and museums across the United States started packing up suspicious treasures. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York sent back 21 items with questionable provenance, including a million-dollar Euphronios Krater that now sits in the Villa Giulia, Rome’s National Etruscan museum.

Italy, of course, is not the only country trying to get back its treasures. Greece is in an ongoing struggle with Britain to return many of its lost art, including the Elgin marbles that were excavated in 1812.  Turkey and Egypt are also pleading with British museums to return dozens of artifacts the countries claim were illegally removed. Following a trend set by al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the self-proclaimed Islamic State has also been accused of plundering ancient sites in Iraq and Syria and selling artifacts to Western collectors through international antiquities traffickers.

The return of Hercules also marks a new phase in Italy’s quest to reclaim its stolen treasures. In January, more than 5,000 pieces, valued at €50 million (about $56.1 million), were returned from warehouses in Switzerland after a 14-year investigation exposed an antiquities black market that is still very much alive. The Swiss pieces were headed to collectors in the U.K., U.K., Germany, and Japan, said Mariarosaria Barbere, Rome’s archeology superintendent, who added that many were never catalogued and, as a result, would be hard to assign a date or actual provenance since the tomb raiders did not keep records pinpointing where they were unearthed. “It’s vitally important that we have recovered these precious objects,” she said at a press conference where most were put on display. “These are our roots that have been devastated in this way. I feel joy, but also bitterness that our archaeological areas have been plundered and ruined.”