Ancient fresco among 60 treasures returned to Italy from U.S. : NPR

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A Pompeian-style fresco from Herculaneum titled “Young Hercules and the snake”, dated to the 1st AC, is on display among other archaeological artifacts stolen from Italy and sold in the United States by international art traffickers, during a press conference in Rome, Monday, January 23, 2023.

Andrew Medicini/AP


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Andrew Medicini/AP

A Pompeian-style fresco from Herculaneum titled “Young Hercules and the snake”, dated to the 1st AC, is on display among other archaeological artifacts stolen from Italy and sold in the United States by international art traffickers, during a press conference in Rome, Monday, January 23, 2023.

Andrew Medicini/AP

ROME — A fresco depicting Hercules and originally from Herculaneum, a city destroyed along with Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, was back in Italy on Monday, along with 59 other pieces of ancients illegally trafficked to the United States.

Last summer, the American authorities announced that the fresco and dozens of other trafficked objects, which ended up in private collections in the United States, would go back to Italy.

Among the most precious pieces Italian and American officials showed to reporters in Rome is a BC kylix, or shallow drinking vessel with two handles, dating back to about 2,600 years. Also returned is a sculpted marble head, from the 2nd century BC, depicting the goddess Athena.

Italy said the returned works are worth more than $20 million (18 million euros) overall.

The fresco, done in the classic Pompeian art style, shows Hercules as a boy choking a snake.

The returned pieces had been sold by art dealers, ended up in private collections in the United States and did not have documentation proving that they could be legally brought out of Italy.

Under an Italian law of 1909, archaeological objects excavated in Italy cannot leave the country without permission unless they were taken abroad before the law was passed.

Among those at Monday’s presentation was Manhattan Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, head of that office’s anti-trafficking unit. On this investigation, his office worked together with a specialized art squad branch of Italy’s paramilitary Carabinieri.

“For Italian antiquities alone we carried out 75 raids, recovering more than 500 priceless treasures valued at more than $55 million,” Bogdanos said.

Italy was a pioneer in the recovery of illegally exported antiquities from museums and private collections abroad.

The country has been so successful in recovering such ancient works of art and artifacts that it has created a museum for them. The Museum of Salvaged Art was inaugurated in June in a cavernous structure that is part of the ancient Baths of Diocletian in Rome.

Italian cultural authorities are deciding whether to assign the last returned pieces to museums near where they were thought to have been excavated. The Minister of Culture Gennaro Sangiuliano told the journalists that another possibility is to have a special exhibition of the returned pieces.

It is not only Italy that loses pieces of its own history when artifacts are discovered in clandestine excavations and smuggled to art dealers for profitable sale. Academic experts, deprived of valuable information about the context of the area where the objects were originally found, lose knowledge about past civilizations.

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