Italy’s cultural police, who have taken a leading role in the fight against the smuggling of antiquities, put on show a trove of recovered stolen art in Rome from Etruscan funerary urns to Renaissance paintings.
Dozens of works are being displayed in the presidential palace in the Italian capital in a special exhibition also intended to show off a police force that is called in to consult on art thefts around the world.
The force said it has the largest database of stolen works around the world – with around 5.7 million objects – and is planning to travel to Libya, Iraq and Syria in the coming months to investigate cases. “The turnover from the illegal trade in art is fourth in the world after arms, drugs and financial products,” said cultural police force head Mariano Mossa.
Italy was the first country to equip itself with a special department to investigate art thefts in 1969 and its headquarters is in a Baroque palace in the centre of Rome that crowds of tourists pass every day. It has 13 regional postings around the country.
Last year the police found a painting by Russian-born Jewish painter Marc Chagall ‘Le Nu au Bouquet’ in a private collector’s home in Bologna that had been stolen from a US tycoon’s yacht in Italy in 2002. They also investigated the shocking theft of hundreds, even thousands, of rare books from the Girolamini Library in Naples that were allegedly smuggled out and sold internationally by its former director. Among the exhibits in the Rome show was an entire Etruscan mausoleum found by builders on a construction site near Perugia in central Italy, including 23 well preserved urns with scenes from Greek mythology. “This is one of the most extraordinary discoveries of recent years in Etruscan art,” said Louis Godart, an adviser to the Italian presidency on conservation.
There is also a sculpture of Roman emperor Tiberius, stolen in 1971 and found in London 40 years later in 2011 and a triptych that disappeared from Florence in 1977 and was recovered only in 2009.
A precious vase that was found during an illegal archaeological excavation was seized as it was being handed over to a Japanese buyer by a Swiss intermediary. These works of art “were stolen from the public in an illegal, immoral way for the purpose of enrichment”, said Maurizio Caprara, a spokesman for President Giorgio Napolitano who hosted the exhibition.
Godart said the recovery of the works showed the police’s “competence, enthusiasm and professionalism, but also how our heritage is extremely fragile”. Godart said Italian museums “urgently” needed more security guards, amid a rise in reported thefts during an economic crisis that has slashed culture budgets.
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