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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations
03/17/2009

Stolen Italian sculpture recovered

350-year-old bust of Saint Innocent disappeared from Naples church in 1990

Saint Innocent statue
Saint Innocent statue
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is preparing to return to the Italian government an antique wooden bust of Saint Innocent, which was stolen with 16 similar busts and two oil paintings from a church in Naples, Italy, in November 1990. The bust was recovered from private owners in the Charlotte area after being sold by an antiques dealer in Greensboro in 2007. No one in the United States has been criminally charged, though the investigation is ongoing.

The bust, by 17th-century Franciscan artist Diego da Careri, was housed in the relic closet in the transept of the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli alle Croci in Naples. The sculpture is carved from wood, painted and detailed in gold. It is missing its head and pieces of a cross that the saint is depicted as carrying.

ICE's attaché in Rome initiated an investigation in 2007 at the request of the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale (TPC). TPC investigators told ICE that Antonio Montini, an Italian citizen, had sold a similar wooden statue to an antiques dealer in Greensboro, N.C.

The ICE investigation revealed the owner of Caroline Faison Antiques sold the wooden relic to another dealer, Neil Johnson, in Charlotte, N.C. ICE Agents contacted Johnson, who confirmed the sale of a statue to a private resident in Charlotte. It was seized by ICE on May 8, 2008, under U.S. customs laws that provide for the forfeiture of stolen cultural property.

ICE, working with Italian authorities on documentation and photos of the stolen property, received confirmation of the authenticity of the statute last week.

In addition to the missing pieces, the bust's paint was in deteriorating condition. The retail value of the bust has diminished significantly due to its condition, but it considered by Italy a national treasure.

This sacred piece, along with several others, were created in response for the need to conserve the relics of saints-parts of their bodies, their clothing or other objects, worthy of adoration by religious followers.

ICE is preparing to return the relic to the Italian government, where it will be placed back on the altar of Santa Maria degli Angeli alle Croci in Naples.

No charges have been filed against the antique dealers or the private citizens who purchased the statue and the investigation into the original theft of the Saint Innocent statue and other religious art taken during the heist continues.

ICE's Office of Investigations works to identify and return items of cultural and historical value to their countries of origin under the Cultural Heritage Program. For more about ICE's cultural heritage investigations, please visit www.ice.gov.