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February 24, 2015New York, NY, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

19 cultural treasures returned to the government of Italy

NEW YORK — Seven U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Special Agent in Charge offices returned 19 cultural treasures to the Italian government this week. The artifacts, including a 17th century cannon, 5th century Greek pottery and items dating to 300-460 B.C., were looted from their rightful Italian owners and smuggled into the United States during the last several years. HSI offices in New York, Boston, Buffalo, Baltimore, Miami, San Diego and San Francisco, with assistance provided by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Italy’s Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale Rome Office (TPC), seized the artifacts during 11 separate investigations.

“The cultural and symbolic worth of these Italian treasures far surpasses any monetary value to the Italians,” said Anthony Scandiffio, deputy special agent in charge of HSI New York. “HSI remains a committed partner in the effort to ensure that we investigate individuals involved in the illicit trade and objects like these are returned to their rightful owner.”

“This repatriation underscores the strong level of judicial cooperation between the U.S. and Italy, and the great attention that both countries assign to the protection of cultural heritage,” said the Claudio Bisogniero, ambassador of Italy to Washington. “The Italian Carabinieri boasts great professionalism and operational capabilities in recovering works of art which is recognized internationally.”

HSI New York returned six objects Wednesday including “sleeping beauty,” an ancient Roman marble sarcophagus lid of Sleeping Ariadne, which was smuggled out of Italy. TPC identified the object as part of a collection of suspected looted Italian antiquities belonging to a known trafficker who was involved in trafficking archeological items from clandestine excavation sites in Italy. HSI special agents seized the sarcophagus lid with a warrant issued by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. 

During the course of two separate investigations, HSI New York seized two stolen cultural treasures from Christie’s auction house in New York. The TPC contacted HSI Rome to help locate a Lucanian red-figured bell krater (circa 420-400 B.C.) and other stolen artifacts. That tip led HSI New York special agents to Christie’s where they seized the stolen krater in July 2013.

In January 2014, HSI New York seized a Roman bronze bust of Mars, circa 2nd century A.D., from Christie’s, and it was administratively forfeited to the U.S. government. Special agents believe the bust was smuggled out of Italy to the United States through Switzerland. It was sold through various galleries, auction houses, museums and private collectors before being seized.

CBP seized a red intaglio, a Byzantine gold pendant and one terracotta pottery fragment from a fine arts dealer after his arrived on a flight from Munich at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. The Archaeological Director of the Special Superintendent’s Office for Cultural Assets in Rome examined the objects and determined the intaglio and pottery fragment were looted from archaeological digs in Italy. 

In 2009, HSI New York special agents received information indicating that a New York-based antiquity collector allegedly dealt in the sale of illicit cultural property. This collector was in possession of an artifact that was looted from an ancient Italian tomb in Paestum, Italy. In February 2012, HSI special agents seized the Steinhardt fragment, and it was forfeited to the U.S. government.

In August 2009, HSI Fort Lauderdale received a request from the Italian Carabinieri to investigate the sale of two cultural artifacts, a votive head and an oinochoe (wine jug) advertised for sale on the Griffin Gallery website. The votive head had been stolen in Italy in 1982 from the private Castel of Pratica di Mare Rome, and a convicted Italian trafficker of archeological artifacts illegally excavated the oinochoe in Italy. The gallery forfeited the items to HSI after learning they were stolen.

HSI Baltimore received information from HSI Rome that an antique book, “Historia natural di Ferrante Imperato Napolitano,” which was previously stolen from the Historical National Library of Agriculture in Rome, had been purchased by a representative of Johns Hopkins University in a 2011 Italian auction. The book was stolen from a natural history research collection that included 17 books in total. The author, Ferrant Imperato, who lived from 1525-1615, was among the first to correctly identify how fossils were formed by subjecting them to empirical tests. In October 2013, Johns Hopkins University relinquished ownership of the book to the U.S. government.
In July 2012, HSI San Diego received information from HSI New York regarding four illegally excavated antiquities from clandestine sites in Pompeii owned by the Allen E. Paulson Trust.  HSI San Diego located and seized the three frescos, dating back to 63-79 A.D., and one askos, dating back to 4th century B.C. The trust administratively forfeited the items to the U.S. government so they could be returned to the Italian government.

In 2013, HSI Boston initiated an investigation based on a tip from CBP regarding the discovery of a breech-loading cannon concealed inside heavy machine equipment. The shipment arrived in the U.S. from Egypt and was addressed to an individual in the Boston area. The cannon was forfeited to the U.S. government following an in-depth HSI investigation.

In July 2011, Walter M. Banko Enterprises Ltd., attempted to import four pieces of antique Greek pottery through the point of entry at Rouses Point, N.Y.  Based on previous investigations and seizures from Walter M. Banko Enterprises Ltd., law enforcement detained the shipment to determine if the pieces had been listed as lost or stolen. In November 2011, HSI Rouses Point seized two of the four pieces of Greek pottery, both from the 5th century B.C. The items were identified as an antique pottery piece titled “Skyphos” and a red-figured pottery krater. These two pieces were seized once they were confirmed to be the same pieces linked to a well-known trafficker of Italian cultural artifacts.

HSI San Francisco received a request from HSI Rome in June 2013 to assist in the recovery of two antique books stolen from the Italian Historical National Library of Agriculture. “Stirpium Historiae” and “Rariorm Plantarum Historia Anno 1601” were sold to a U.S. buyer in the San Francisco area. Special agents met with the purchaser of the books, and he willingly turned them over to HSI.  

HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve illegally importing and distributing cultural property, including illicit trafficking of cultural property, especially objects that have been reported lost or stolen. HSI International Operations, through its 63 attaché offices in 46 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.

HSI's specially trained investigators assigned to both domestic and international offices, partner with governments, agencies and experts to protect cultural antiquities. They also provide cultural property investigative training to law enforcement partners for crimes involving stolen property and art, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.

Since 2007, more than 7,200 artifacts have been returned to 30 countries, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria; 15th to 18th century manuscripts from Italy and Peru; as well as cultural artifacts from China, Cambodia and Iraq.

Learn more about HSI cultural property, art and antiquities investigations. Members of the public who have information about suspected stolen cultural property are urged to call the toll-free HSI tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete its online tip form.