Prosecutors become treasure hunters in antiquities repatriation campaign

Manhattan district attorney forms anti-trafficking unit to repatriate works owned by dealers and collectors

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance discusses the repatriation of three ancient sculptures during a news conference in New York. The sculptures, from left, the "Calf Bearer,' the 'Bull's Head,' and the 'Torso,' are being returned to their rightful owners in Lebanon as Vance forms a new antiquities trafficking unit, on December 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance discusses the repatriation of three ancient sculptures during a news conference in New York. The sculptures, from left, the "Calf Bearer,' the 'Bull's Head,' and the 'Torso,' are being returned to their rightful owners in Lebanon as Vance forms a new antiquities trafficking unit, on December 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

NEW YORK (AP) — The lawmen who knocked on the door of Helen Fioratti’s Park Avenue apartment this fall weren’t hunting for a fugitive or a stash of drugs. They were after her coffee table.

The small table was topped with a colorful marble mosaic that was once part of an ornate ship built by the Roman emperor Caligula, and its seizure was part of an aggressive campaign by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. to repatriate antiquities believed to have been illegally looted.

Sleuthing by Vance’s staff also led to seizures of ancient objects this year from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Christie’s auction house and a respected European art fair.

The prosecutor is well positioned for such work in a city that is considered the US epicenter of antiquities sales, fueled by New York’s concentration of wealth, galleries, and notable museums. At a news conference Friday, Vance announced he was forming a new anti-trafficking unit that will expand work the office is already doing to recover looted items.

A pottery vessel, among seven ancient statues and pottery vessels heading back to their homeland in Italy, May 25, 2017. (Laura J. Badger/Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, New York via AP)

The unit, made up of lawyers, a paralegal, and a team of antiquities trafficking analysts, will be tasked with scrutinizing the tips the office receives from scholars and others about the origin of items held by the city’s dealers and collectors, and gathering the evidence they need to confirm whether the treasures in question were obtained legally.

Vance made the announcement in a ceremony in which three statues dating to the 3rd, 4th and 6th centuries BC were returned to Lebanon. The statues, worth more than $5 million, were excavated from a temple and stolen during the Lebanese Civil War that began in 1975.

“When you put a price tag on these artifacts, it is all too easy to forget that these are not just valuable collector’s items. These are rare, celebrated remnants of entire civilizations’ culture and history,” Vance said.

In some cases, the seized artifacts were purchased legally long ago by people who had no inkling they had essentially been stolen by treasure hunters.

Fioratti, whose mosaic was confiscated, said she purchased it more than 40 years ago while living in Italy. She was told the piece had been owned by a member of the aristocratic Barberini family. The sale was brokered by an Italian art historian known for his work recovering art stolen by the Nazis.

“It was an innocent purchase,” she said. “We were very happy with it. We loved it. We had it for years and years, and people always complimented us on it.”

Homeland Security Investigations New York Special Agent in Charge Angel Melendez, left, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.,, center, and Pakistan’s US Deputy Chief of Mission Rizwan Saeed Sheikh, pose with an ancient Buddhist sculpture during a news conference in New York, April 27, 2016. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

The mosaic, which dated to 35 CE, was once part of the inlaid marble floor of a Caligula-commissioned pleasure ship for Lake Nemi, outside Rome. After his assassination, the vessel sank and remained underwater for nearly 2,000 years, until it was excavated in the 1920s. The mosaic was displayed at a museum that was later used as a World War II bomb shelter. It was eventually destroyed or damaged by fire, leaving the piece that ended up in Fioratti’s apartment as one of the few known intact artifacts of its kind.

While angry about the seizure, Fioratti, an antiques dealer by profession, said she did not fight it because “it costs a fortune to fight with Italy” and could take years.

“That’s why we don’t deal with antiquities,” she said of her own gallery, L’Antiquaire and the Connoisseur. “There’s just no good way of knowing it isn’t stolen.”

The mosaic was returned to Italy in October.

Manhattan prosecutors in October seized an ancient limestone bas-relief on display at a fair for European art, prompting loud objections from the London dealer who noted that before entering private hands, the piece had been on display for decades at a museum in Montreal. It was initially unearthed in an Iranian ruin in the 1930s.

Other items seized by Vance’s office this year included a wine vessel dating to about 360-350 BCE that had been displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and a fish plate made about the same time being auctioned at Christie’s. The objects were both forfeited willingly, once the owners were presented with the evidence that they had been stolen from Italy.

Also returned to Italy in the past year were a bronze warrior dating back to the eighth century BCE, a drinking cup decorated with two goats butting heads from the fourth century BCE, and an oil flask depicting a man holding a plate of fruit, dating to 340 BCE.

Three ancient sculptures, from left. the “Calf Bearer,’ the ‘Bull’s Head,’ and the ‘Torso,’ are displayed during a press conference and repatriation ceremony at Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in New York, December 15, 2017. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

The recoveries were made possible by a joint investigation with Italian officials and the assistance of Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist based in Cambridge, England, who also works at the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow.

The pieces that have been repatriated represent “only the tip of the iceberg,” Tsirogiannis said, with the bulk of the business still being conducted in secrecy.

The bulk of the antiquities being offered today at New York sales have no provenance, Tsirogiannis said, meaning there is no way to trace their origins or collecting history. And in some cases, dealers have taken steps to conceal the origin of objects by falsifying their histories.

For his work, Tsirogiannis said, he combs auction houses and art dealer catalogs, looking for clues on the provenance and comparing sales with archives from dealers who have had their work confiscated and who are held criminally liable. But only a small percentage of such items are repatriated, Tsirogiannis said.

“There are laws about cultural heritage, and we have to accept them, and they’re meant to protect cultural heritage,” he said. “It’s not a matter of sale, not a matter of money. Not all things have a price.”

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