Rome fills new museum with stolen art

Since mid-June, Rome has a new and special museum to provide temporary shelter to art that has been ‘rescued’ in the broadest sense: stolen works of art intercepted on the international black art market, as well as art objects that have been restored after a earthquake or other natural disaster in safety.

The Museo dell’ Arte Salvata, or the Museum of Salvaged Art, is housed in a beautiful octagonal and wonderfully cool auditorium that belongs to the Baths of Diocletian, an impressive ancient Roman bathhouse complex near the main train station in Rome-Termini.

The very first exhibition, which runs until mid-October, displays 101 pre-Roman works of art, the oldest of which date from the late eighth century BC. Their place of origin is central and southern Italy.

It includes Etruscan ceramic amphorae as well as works of art from Magna Graecia, the Greek colony that included most of southern Italy. That collection (late fifth century to mid-third century BC) also contains some silver coins from Greek rule.

The series of beautiful terracotta portraits with lively facial expressions (fourth to third centuries BC) is also striking. They probably come from Latium, the region around Rome, or Etruria, which covered much of modern central Italy. The artworks on display are part of 260 works that were seized in the US and flown to their country of origin, Italy last December.

Fresco from Herculaneum

And more beautiful things are expected: In September, a shipment of 142 unique archaeological objects from New York will follow. One of the art treasures is a fresco from Herculaneum, the city near Naples, which was buried in 79 AD. during the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius. The fresco depicts Hercules as a child strangling a snake, and that work alone is valued at $1 million. More than a third of this shipment of art treasures, including Hercules, was seized by American hedge fund billionaire Michael Steinhardt.

Back in Italy, the fresco probably won’t stay long in Rome. The archaeological site of Herculaneum is eager to get the fresco home. The Museum of Saved Art in Rome is just that: just a temporary transit point for stolen or long-lost art before it can be returned home, says Stéphane Verger, director of Rome’s National Museum, also responsible for this new art collection.

Fake or real?

Only from mid-October, after this first exhibition, will the collection be reviewed thoroughly. Then it will show whether there are fake items. There is no doubt about the authenticity of the exhibition’s exhibits – such as the terracotta heads or the huge Etruscan vases – says Verger.

But other pieces may be fakes or originals that were poorly painted over. Why also show the objects about which there is great doubt? “Because we want to make the visitor realize that stolen works of art have also been robbed of their historical context,” says the director.

For archaeologists, it is precisely this connection that has great value, he explains. For example, a completely intact Mycenaean vase without any context is much less interesting than a shard of such a vase, such as was found in Spain. “Because it teaches us something about trade contacts between people. Art thieves also rob a country and a people of its own history.”

art carabinieri

Restoring this history is the mission of a specialized corps of the Italian Carabinieri (Marechaussee). Since 1969, carabinieri from the Cultural Heritage Protection Corps have already found more than three million works of art and intercepted 1.3 million forgeries. “Our 320 agents operate throughout Italy and also manage the largest database worldwide of 1.3 million stolen works of art,” said Commander Roberto Riccardi.

The investigators are looking into whether artworks from that database turn up at auction houses, museums or private collections. But finding archaeological pieces that were looted during illegal excavations is extra difficult because these pieces do not appear in any database. Such pieces must therefore be recognized by the investigators themselves. “If you want to work for us, a degree in art history will come in handy,” says the commander. Archaeological art from Italy on the market is almost always illegal: since 1909, all archaeological art has been owned by the Italian government.

Italy versus art criminals

Italy is an international authority in the field of cultural heritage protection. The Italian government works closely with the American authorities, because 40 percent of the worldwide art market (legal and, at the same time, also illegal) is located in the United States. But there are also good contacts with a lot of other countries, where the Italians want to train other investigators. In addition, Italy has a corps of cultural blue helmets, which can protect art treasures in case of natural disasters or war.

There are no mafiosi behind the illegal art trade, but highly specialized and internationally operating art criminals. Their annual turnover is estimated at around 6 billion euros. “But because of us, the illegal market has really shrunk,” says the commander. “No museum now buys art of questionable origin, and auction houses are also becoming more cautious.” However, eradicating art smuggling completely is a utopia. “Already in ancient times, Roman soldiers looted tombs. And Rome itself was also sacked. As long as people exist, they will commit crimes.”

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