A Trove of Artifacts Officials Call ‘Stolen’ Are Returned to Italy

They stole a wine cup dating back 2,500 years from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, along with six other artefacts that predate Caesar. They stole about a hundred Greco-Roman antiques from Fordham University in the Bronx, New York, which were worth about $2 million.

Artifacts were taken from New York City galleries and private houses, as well as from New York City museums and the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Edoardo Almagià, a 70-year-old antiquities dealer from Rome, is accused in court documents of engaging in a three-decade long smuggling binge, and the Manhattan district attorney’s office has secretly seized 160 artefacts associated with him.

On Wednesday, the Italian consulate in New York was ceremonially presented with 150 pieces tied to the Almagià and another 50 items linked to other accused traffickers, in what officials are calling the largest single repatriation of antiques from America to Italy. Among the two hundred artefacts retrieved are marble busts, ceramic figurines, and painted jars and vessels estimated to be worth $10 million.

A Trove of Artifacts Officials Call ‘Stolen’ Are Returned to Italy

The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said in a statement, “For years, prestigious museums and private collectors across the United States prominently displayed these Italian historical treasures despite the fact that their very presence in America constituted evidence of cultural heritage crimes.”

Italy’s national military police, the Carabinieri, flew in to take ownership of the artefacts, and Brig. Gen. Roberto Riccardi, who heads up the unit responsible for protecting cultural heritage, stated that statutes of limitations made it difficult for Italy to prosecute Mr. Almagià. He emphasised the significance of recovering significant archaeological artefacts that are fundamental to our cultural identity.

When informed of Mr. Almagià’s participation, the individuals and institutions in possession of the artefacts voluntarily surrendered them, according to investigators. Most of the buyers had purchased the artefacts from middlemen who had originally purchased them from Mr. Almagià, a Princeton graduate who had made his home in New York and sold artworks there from 1980 until 2006.

When asked about the forfeitures, Matthew Bogdanos, who heads the office’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit, stated, “To their credit, every person and organisation we’ve spoken with so far regarding Almagià has agreed with us that we are correct – the pieces were stolen property.”

The Pithos is From the 7th Century and was Found at the Getty Museum.

Image courtesy of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

In an agitated phone interview, Mr. Almagià, who is under investigation for illegally smuggling hundreds of Italian antiquities into the United States and filing fake customs forms, flatly refuted the claims against him and downplayed any import infractions as small.

“There are thousands of items that travel around the world without papers, and they are only asking for papers now, and in the past they never had such requirements,” Mr. Almagià said, referring to the trade in antiquities from the Roman era, which is strictly regulated under Italian law and under longstanding agreements between Italy and the United States.

He questioned, “Why are they doing this now?” before adding, “So much money is being spent to persecute sellers when it may be used to rebuild Italian museums, where so many identical items are already at risk.”

Both Italian and American officials have been looking into Mr. Almagià for decades. Recently unsealed court documents in the instance of millionaire Michael H. Steinhardt, who returned 180 stolen artefacts, including 10 sold to him by Mr. Almagià, show a chronology of his legal entanglements, which date back to at least 1996.

According to the reports, Mr. Almagià was apprehended at Kennedy Airport in 2000 with two frescoes that had been stolen from the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum. His flat on East 78th Street was seized by federal officials the year he left the country, 2006. Therefore, he gave up six articles that were later found illegal.

The Italian court that tried him in 2012 cleared him of overseeing the theft of artefacts from tombs of the ancient Roman and Etruscan civilizations. However, the court ruled that all of the artefacts in his hands must be confiscated, calling the number of stolen things he handled “one of the largest bags of Italian cultural heritage.”

When asked about any run-ins with the law, Mr. Almagià responded, “I sold items from Italy, definitely yeah.” Objects in U.S. museums have almost certainly been stolen from excavations, but I believe they should be allowed to remain there so that American tourists can enjoy them.

Mr. Bogdanos’s team is going to great lengths, both in terms of time and geography, to seize objects, as seen by this case and other recent acts like the Steinhardt seizures. Mr. Bogdanos claimed that the seizures were necessary because New York was “the hub of conspiracy” and because of a state legislation that allows prosecutors to return stolen property to its “rightful owners” regardless of when or where the item was taken.

All four of the museums implicated in the case indicated that after studying the district attorney’s evidence, they chose to voluntarily hand up their Almagià-related items.

Hardest damaged was the Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art at Fordham University, which surrendered close to a hundred of the 260 objects donated in 2007 by a single alumnus, William D. Walsh, who died in 2013 and was unaware of their troubled history, authorities said. His collection includes works of art from the Greco-Roman era that dated back to at least 700 B.C., such as renowned portraits and works of ceramics.

His contribution, together with another forty, enabled the university to establish an open-access museum and academic centre for the study of ancient Mediterranean art. One of the items taken was a terracotta hydria, or water jar, measuring 19 inches in height and representing labours of Hercules; it was featured prominently on the cover of the museum’s catalogue in 2012.

Fordham University Issued a Statement Justifying the Seizures and Return to their Rightful Owners.

The statement continued, “Since Fordham received the antiquities in 2007, it has been transparent regarding the objects’ provenance or lack thereof, including the publication of a catalogue in 2012,” presumably so that other researchers would have access to all relevant information about the collection. The University still maintains more than 200 antiquities in its collection, which will be restructured to optimise their usage in Fordham’s teaching museum.”

“Most of the artworks being deaccessioned were accepted as donations to the Getty 25 years ago,” the museum stated in a statement. When Getty learns of new information concerning the provenance of objects, they perform an in-depth review and, if necessary, return the items.

The San Antonio Museum of Art, which gave over five Greco-Roman jars and plates and a set of ceramic fragments, said: “We are glad that the District Attorney has formally confirmed that the artefacts will now be returned to the government of Italy.

We will continue to strive actively to resolve any genuine ownership claims of which the museum becomes aware.” Three artworks that the Cleveland Museum of Art had purchased directly from Mr. Almagià in the mid-1990s were seized, and the museum said it recognised the propriety of the confiscation.

Mr. Bogdanos said he expected future seizures and judicial procedures as a result of the Almagià affair. According to him, extraditing the objects would be tough, but “there are many other museums with Almagià pieces around the country.”