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April 19, 2017Boston, MA, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

ICE HSI and Boston Public Library return cultural artifacts to Italy

BOSTON – U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the Boston Public Library repatriated several items of significant cultural value to the government of Italy at a ceremony Wednesday at the Boston Public Library.

Included among these items were a 14th century manuscript, an illuminated page from a 15th century manuscript, nearly 200 ancient Roman coins and a book from the personal library of a 14th century Archbishop in Sicily.

The manuscript, illuminated page and book were part of the Boston Public Library’s Special Collections, acquired in good faith via reputable dealers in the latter half of the 1900s, after these items were taken from Italian cultural institutions. The library and the City of Boston worked together with HSI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Massachusetts to return these items once the rightful owners were determined.

“The theft of a nation’s cultural antiquities robs a nation of its rightful history, its people of their pride and identity and the fundamental historical contributions their ancestors made to today’s modern world,” said Special Agent in Charge Matthew Etre, of HSI Boston. “HSI is honored to have worked with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the U.S. Attorney’s office, the Italian Carabinieri and the Boston Public Library to make it possible to return these rare artifacts that so clearly belong to the people of Italy.

“I would like to highlight that public and private institutions are experiencing a change of perception in terms of cultural heritage. This transition has shifted from the concept of the need to return stolen cultural property to its rightful owner, based merely on law, to a broadly shared ‘culture of restitution,’ said Brigadier General Fabrizio Parrulli, Carabinieri Commander for the Protection of the Italian Cultural Heritage (Carabinieri TPC).

“These three items represent Italy’s rich history, and I’m pleased that through the cooperation of the Department of Homeland Security U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Boston Public Library was able to ensure the safe return of these artifacts to their rightful homes in Italy,” said Mayor Martin J. Walsh. “I thank everyone involved in this successful process.”

“We are pleased to collaborate with Homeland Security Investigations in identifying and arranging for the return of these historic treasures. While the United States has provided a safe haven over the years, these priceless items are an important part of Italian history and rightly belong with them,” said Acting United States Attorney William D. Weinreb. “We recognize the importance of ensuring that culturally-significant property is returned to its homeland, and will coordinate with foreign governments through mutual treaties to do so.”

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection appreciates the historical and cultural significance of these ancient artifacts and is proud to work with our law enforcement partners to return them to their home nation,” said CBP Boston Director of Field Operations William A. Ferrara. “The vigilance and dedication of our officers, import specialists and support staff, along with HSI special agents, demonstrates our integrated effort to recover priceless stolen antiquities such as these.”

The first piece is a manuscript known as the “Mariegola della Scuola Grande di Santa Maria di Valverde della Misericordia.” A “mariegole” in Latin means “matricula” or “Mother Rule.” A mariegola is a book where the rules of some artistic guilds, religious brotherhoods and lay corporations were kept, often updated throughout the period the originating group existed. The second piece is an illuminated page belonging to another manuscript known as the “Mariegola della Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista.

These documents were used in the Venetian guilds and represented all the rights, obligations and governing statutes of the organizations. These manuscripts are original texts and included successive changes and alterations, updated over their lifetimes due to resolutions, decrees and proclamations. These particular documents originated in Venice in the 14th and 15th centuries.

The next item is a 14th century book authored by Bernadino Telesio and stolen sometime after 1824. It was from the donated collection of a 14th century Italian archbishop. This book bears the personal signature of Cardinal Ludivico Il De Torres, the Archbishop of Monreale (a small town in Palermo, Sicily) from 1588 until his death in 1609.

The Archbishop’s personal books bore his signature on the front page. His entire personal collection was donated to a library named in his honor near the end of his life, and is protected by a Papal Bull issued by Pope Clement VIII in 1593. A Papal bull is a specific kind of public decree issued by a pope of the Roman Catholic Church. This specific decree forbids the removal of any work from this specific collection upon pain of excommunication.

The Telesio book had been legitimately purchased by the Boston Public Library from a California dealer in 1980. Upon discovery of the provenance of the book, the Boston Public Library willingly relinquished it to authorities so that it could be returned to the Italian people.

And finally, HSI and CBP worked jointly to interdict, identify and seize a package of what was later determined to be ancient Roman coins, shipped from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to a legitimate consignee in Providence, Rhode Island, in March 2014. Inspecting officers with CBP noted the coins had fresh dirt between the edges, that some of the metal had turned green from decay and that many of the coins were cracked or worn. The shipment was detained under U.S. customs law pending further investigation. The coins were later seized on suspicion they had been imported into the United States in violation of laws pertaining to the importation and sale of stolen cultural artifacts.

An expert examined the coins and noted that the coins were Roman in origin, many from the period of Emperor Constantine I, circa 337 AD. HSI was able to obtain custody of the items, which are part of the repatriated items being returned to the government of Italy.

Since 2007, ICE has returned about 8,000 artifacts to more than 30 countries, including paintings from Italy, France, Germany, Poland and Austria, dinosaur fossils to Mongolia, antiquities and Saddam Hussein-era objects to Iraq, a mummy's hand to Egypt, and most recently hundreds of ceramics and textiles, some dating as far back as the eighth century A.D., to Peru.

Members of the public who have information about suspected stolen cultural property are urged to call the toll-free tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete the online tip form.

Updated: 10/08/2020