Pillaged Treasure

The Case of Italy’s Stolen 1,800-Year-Old Sarcophagus Lid

Along with 24 other missing pieces of Italy’s heritage, the lid bearing a gorgeous sleeping Ariadne was returned this week—after 34 years of being smuggled around the world.

05.27.15 9:15 AM ET

ROME — An 1,800-year-old sarcophagus lid depicting a sublime version of a sleeping Ariadne, the goddess of labyrinths and sometimes of passion, came home to Italy this week after more than three decades on the lam. The return of Ariadne, along with 24 other pieces of Italy’s stolen heritage handed over by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, was heralded on Tuesday by Italy’s culture police and John Phillips, the American ambassador to Italy. “The plundering of historical and cultural artifacts is among the oldest forms of cross-border organized crime,” Phillips said, pointing out that Interpol puts smugglers’ annual profits at more than $9 billion. “Only human trafficking, narcotics, and weapons trades generate more illicit revenue.”

Flanked by Italy’s culture minister, Dario Franceschini, Phillips said witnessing antiquities being destroyed in acts of terrorism has only strengthened his resolve to ensure the United States safely returns Italy’s pillaged treasures. So far, he added, the United States has returned more than 7,600 illicitly obtained artifacts to 30 countries since 2007. “These are but a fraction of the cultural objects that are circulating on the illicit market today,” he said. “However, every victory, every piece that is returned, every bit of cultural history that can be restored to its rightful home is a measure of progress.”

he prosecution's Exhibit B showing the lid in two parts

Among the recovered treasures on display Tuesday were ancient frescoes chipped off the walls of the ruins in Pompeii, Etruscan vases illegally dug from farmers’ fields, and a 17th-century Venetian bronze cannon that was hidden inside a crate filled with construction equipment being smuggled into the United States. The treasures were recovered from public museums and private collections in Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, Ohio, New York, and Florida. Aridane—the largest of the pieces returned, weighing in at more than 1,700 pounds—was shuffled around Europe and the United States for decades until it reappeared in the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan in 2013, where it was on offer for $4 million.

Aridane was smuggled out of Italy in 1981, allegedly by Sicilian art dealer Gianfranco Becchina who, along with Giacomo Medici, were responsible for filling American and European museums with stolen Italian and Greek artifacts for decades. Medici, who was convicted in 2004 of peddling stolen artifacts, worked closely with J. Paul Getty Museum curator Marion True and her art dealer Robert Hecht, who were all on trial in Rome until the statute of limitations ran out on their crimes several years ago.

Becchina, who kept his collection and ran his illicit trafficking business in Basel, Switzerland, was convicted of artifacts trafficking in 2011. He allegedly imported the Ariadne lid to Switzerland in 1981 and put it on display as a two-part exhibit with the entire tomb at the Historical Museum of Bern from November 6, 1982, until February 6, 1983, according to the noted Cultural Heritage Lawyer blog, which traces stolen artifacts around the world.

According to a court brief filed in the Eastern District of New York in 2001, Japanese collector Noriyoshi Horiuchi then bought just the lid bearing Ariadne’s likeness sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s after seeing it in Bern, with the intention of building the Miho Museum exhibit of his European art collection.

The Miho, southeast of Kyoto, Japan, is still battling with Italy over other disputed works allegedly procured by Horiuchi, though he is not under investigation in Italy.

Records show Horiuchi later legally imported the sarcophagus lid with the sleeping Ariadne statue into the United States by reporting that he had notified the Italian government he owned the statue and the provenance was uncontested. That, apparently, is a record that never reached the cultural police in Rome. The Ariadne then disappeared until 2013, when it briefly went up for sale in Manhattan.

A combination picture shows Afghan migrant Ali, 15, and him displaying his religious possessions near the Serbian border with Hungary in the town of Subotica, Serbia May 7, 2015. Ali says he wants to go to Belgium to meet his friends and to finish high school. He travelled for 20 days through Iran, Turkey and Bulgaria to reach Serbia.

Marko Djurica / Reuters

Italian cultural police were alerted after it was spotted in 2013 in the Park Avenue Armory, thanks to a dedicated team of international artifact trafficking sleuths who scan artifact sale bills for stolen loot. For reasons yet unclear, it was swiftly removed to a warehouse in Long Island in 2014, where agents from ICE eventually found it and began the repatriation process that brought it back to Rome this week.

The 25 pieces in the cache presented Tuesday—and the many more that have preceded them—have similar sordid histories, be they smuggled out of Italy in clandestine operations or shipped outright during a time when Italy’s Cultural Ministry turned a blind eye to the practice. The only thing that unites them is that Italians want them back home.