NEW YORK, Dec 18, (Agencies): 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’s 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.
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 B.C. 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.” The mosaic, which dated to 35 A.D., was once part of the inlaid marble fl oor 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 didn’t 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.” It 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 B.C. 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.