What Would Indy Do?
How To Get Rid of Cursed Treasure
From Roman treasures and Mayan artifacts to paintings confiscated from the Nazis—these spectacular stolen artworks were returned by remorseful looters.
Indiana Jones wannabes aren’t just plagued by ancient curses of the treasures they pillage—some of them are haunted by their own guilt.
Last week, 20 years after a looter took ancient artifacts from an excavation site in Israel, the pieces were returned with a note. “These are two Roman ballista balls from Gamla, from a residential quarter at the foot of the summit,” the remorseful plunderer wrote. “I stole them in July 1995, and since then they have brought me nothing but trouble. Please, do not steal antiquities!”
The 2,000-year-old slingshot-style weapons were left in a bag at the courtyard of the Museum of Islamic and Near Eastern Cultures. They had originally been made by Romans to attack the city during the First Jewish-Roman War around 73 A.D. They had been missed by the archaeologists excavating the first-century city near the Syrian border, where 2,000 of the balls had been found, and stolen a few years after the site was closed. “We did not realize something was missing,” an archaeologist with the Israel Antiquities Authority said in a statement. “Such ‘returns’ are not that extraordinary. They happen every few years,” he told Live Science.
It’s not the first time a repentant thief has sent back valuables. From bad luck to guilt, here are some other good deeds done by tomb raiders for the sake of a clean conscious.
The Red Army’s Stolen Drawings
In 1993, a retired Red Army officer dropped off an anonymous delivery of 101 drawings by masters like Goya, Manet, and Delacroix at the German embassy in Moscow. They had been looted from the Bremen museum in 1945 by Soviet soldiers, and stored in a castle outside Berlin. The officer said he discovered them being mistreated and took them home. “'He wanted the stuff to go back,” one of the Soviet-era art scholars who later tracked him down told The New York Times. “For all those 50 years he felt he was sitting on stolen property.”
But it wasn’t until seven years later, when Germany returned two pieces of the legendary and elusive Amber Room to Russia, that the drawings finally made their way back to the motherland. It was the first time Russia allowed a return of art taken during World War II, and Russian officials stressed that it was the doing of a private citizen—and the state would not be following suit. Much to Germany’s anger, Russia remains unwilling to give back the 200,000 pieces of artwork it took from Nazi territories as WWII ended. The so-called “trophy art” continues to be a diplomatic stalemate, even causing current-day tension between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The looting of the Baghdad Museum as Saddam Hussein’s government crumbled was one of the most devastating moments for antiquities lovers, who watched from across the globe as priceless treasures were grabbed across the war-torn country. In 2003, three men anonymously returned one of Iraq’s most precious treasures in the back of a car. The Sacred Vase of Warka, a massive limestone bowl, dates back to around 3200 B.C. The anonymous return meant the men would not face prosecution from the American-led Coalition Provisional Authority, who threatened punishment against those in possession of looted objects.
Frescoes of Pompeii
In 2001, London dealer James Ede received (PDF) an anonymous phone call that led him to his doorstep, where he found six fragments of Roman frescoes taken from Pompeii during excavations. They had been stolen 16 years earlier from the walls of a villa near the ancient city, and were estimated to be worth around £100,000. According to investigators (PDF) in Rome, the pieces had recently been put on the London market by an Irish businessman, but the fear of pending investigations prompted him to give them up instead.
Box of the Maya
In 2006, just a year after a stunning 1,500-year-old stone box from the Mayan civilization was found in Guatemala, it mysteriously vanished. Investigators said the thieves managed to get past the locked gate protecting the cave where the ancient treasure was discovered. But after a national investigation, its owner seemed to get cold feet and returned it in an anonymous delivery at the country’s Ministry of Culture. In an included note, the returnee, who claimed to be a private buyer, said the piece had been purchased without the knowledge it was stolen. The box, which may have held a book, was described as one of the best pieces from the ancient Mayan classical period and had been missing for only two months.
A Piece of the Parthenon
In the 1960s, a young Dutch backpacker grabbed a small piece of the Greek Parthenon during a visit to the temple in Athens. Nearly half a century later, in 2009, guilt finally got the best of him, and he turned it over to the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities, which facilitated the piece’s return to the Acropolis. Though the piece was just a fragment, Greek authorities said they hoped other sticky-fingered tourists would follow suit.
Utah’s Man Down
In 1950, a group of rancher brothers by the name of Pilling discovered 11 small ancient clay figurines in a Utah canyon. Archaeologists determined they belonged to a long-vanished people called the Fremont Culture, who had lived in the region from 700 to 1300 A.D. For two decades, these pieces, which came to be known as the Pilling Collection, toured around Utah museums. But in the early 1970s, one of the figures mysteriously failed to show up. In 2011, an anthropologist at Utah State University received a box with the missing piece. In it was an anonymous note: ‘Sometime between 1978 and 1982 I came into possession of this piece by way of a vagabond acquaintance. He had told of ‘acquiring’ it near Vernal, Utah. I have great interest and respect for this continent’s native culture and have always hoped to somehow return this to wherever it had come from.”