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There's No Place but Home For This Stolen Italian Art
Sarah Delaney
The Washington Post 19/12/2007

ROME -- An unusual exhibit of archaeological treasures opens this week here with a very clear message: Italy will no longer sit back while its artistic patrimony is spirited out of the country by grave robbers, traffickers and unscrupulous art dealers.

Featured at the presidential Quirinal Palace are 68 exquisite vases, statues and other antiquities that Italy has recently recovered from U.S. museums. These are objects that over decades had been illegally snatched from Italian soil, Culture Minister Francesco Rutelli said when introducing the exhibit.

The show is the result of a 10-year campaign by the Culture Ministry and a special group of the carabinieri, or military police, specializing in art and archaeological theft to reclaim some of the innumerable objects looted from Italian soil.

The pieces displayed are some of the most prized from the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Princeton University Art Museum and private galleries. They were acquired in a not-so-distant past, when the museums were less rigorous in checking the ownership history of art and before strict laws regarding art smuggling were in place in Italy.

Often the museums had acquired the items without knowing they'd been stolen.

Rutelli, who over the past year or so increased pressure on the museums to return certain works, said the objects had "come home after an odyssey," a concept evoked by the title of the show, "Nostoi: Returned Masterpieces." "Nostoi" is a Greek word used in epic poems to describe a long voyage to one's homeland.

He said in a news conference that the objects in the show had been "dug out from the bowels of the earth, deprived of their identity and taken to other countries." There was a time, he allowed, when there were many precious objects either buried or languishing in warehouses that some authorities believed might be better off in a foreign museum. Those days are gone, he said. But the renewed efforts to bring home work of Italian origin is "not nationalistic, but universal, because all national patrimonies belong to the world," he said.

Giving a nod to a new spirit of collaboration and consensus between Italy and major museums, Rutelli said the return of the artifacts represented "an epochal change," and that "if we dry up the waters of illegal art trafficking, it will be much more difficult for tombaroli [the word, which means "grave diggers," refers to those who raid archaeological sites] and others to operate."

Rutelli said museums will be repaid for their cooperation with longer loans of prestigious antiquities from Italy and praised the "new standards of ethics that American museums have adopted."

Most of the works date from the 7th through 2nd centuries B.C. and are Etruscan or Greek, many from the period when the Greeks colonized the southern half of the Italian peninsula known then as Magna Graecia. Exquisite ceramics and pottery make up much of the exhibition. There are large kraters (wide containers used to mix water and wine), anphorae (narrow-mouthed jars with handles) and kylikes (dishes with curved sides and handles for food). Many were painted with mythological figures in red on a black background, by some of the best artists of the time.

Forty pieces came from the Getty in Malibu, Calif., the museum with which Italy has had the most contentious relationship. Marion True, the former Getty curator of antiquities, and art dealer Robert Hecht are on trial in Rome on charges of conspiring to traffic in stolen art.

Other pieces, including a 2nd-century marble statue of a Roman empress known as Vibia Sabina, came from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which returned a total of 12 pieces. A space in the Rome exhibit is waiting for the famous and long-contested Euphronios krater that the Metropolitan Museum of Art will deliver next month, one of five objects the museum will return.

A 6th-century B.C. Etruscan bronze sculpture from a private collector in Switzerland was returned to Italy only a week ago and put in the show. Also shown is an extremely rare ivory mask of a deity from the 1st century B.C. It was dug up by a tombarolo near Bracciano, a town north of Rome.

Italian art sleuths have been instrumental in recovering objects stolen from Pakistan and Iran, Rutelli said, and he believes Italy can play a crucial role in global efforts to block illegal trafficking in art and archaeological objects.

The National Archeological Museum of Athens lent a marble kore, or maiden, from the 6th century. It had been stolen and exhibited at the Getty, which then returned it. Greece has joined Italy in its efforts to recover looted ancient artifacts.

The exhibit opens to the public Friday and runs through March 2.


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