U.S. Authorities Return Antiquities Worth $19 Million to Italy, Including 27 Objects Seized From the Met

Italy has welcomed home nearly 60 looted artifacts, receiving them from U.S. authorities, who recovered around half of the objects from the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Collectively worth about $19 million, the relics were returned to the Italian authorities by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in July and September 2022, and earlier this week, were exhibited at a press conference in Rome. “For us Italians,” said Vincenzo Molinese, head of the Carabinieri art squad, “the value of these artworks, which is the value of our historic and cultural identity, is incalculable.”

Among the repatriated artifacts are a white marble bust of Roman emperor Septimius Severus, which was recovered in 2020, on the eve of it heading to auction at Christie’s New York; as well as the Marble Head of Athena, a 200 B.C.E. sculpture that was filched from a temple in central Italy, and a kylix or drinking cup, which dates back to 470 B.C.E., both among the 27 objects seized from the Met last year.

Also included is a fresco, dated to 50 C.E., depicting a young Hercules battling a snake. The work, which survived the 79 C.E. eruption of Mount Vesuvius, was looted by tomb raiders from a villa in the ancient town of Herculaneum and illegally run into the U.S. Italy first asked for its return in 1997.

All 60 objects had been variously smuggled into the U.S. over the past five decades by traffickers Giacomo Medici, Giovanni Franco Becchina, Pasquale Camera, and Edoardo Almagiá, notorious for employing local looters to pillage archaeological sites across Italy.

While their criminal enterprises were frequently in competition with one another, all four sold artifacts to Michael Steinhardt, the billionaire who’d amassed a hoard of plundered relics, including the Herculaneum fresco for $650,000 in 1995. Following a multiyear investigation into his collection and illicit collecting practices, Steinhardt received a lifetime ban from acquiring antiquities in 2021.

“These 58 pieces represent thousands of years of rich history, yet traffickers throughout Italy utilized looters to steal these items and to line their own pockets,” Alvin L. Bragg, Jr., Manhattan District Attorney, said in a statement following the return of the artifacts. “For far too long, they have sat in museums, homes, and galleries that had no rightful claim to their ownership.”

At the event in Rome, officials on both sides stressed the ongoing need to crack down on the illicit trafficking of antiquities.

With this latest repatriation, Italy’s culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano said that Italian cultural authorities are contemplating returning the artifacts to museums located close to where they were excavated. A special exhibition of the recovered objects (Italy inaugurated a Museum of Rescued Art last year to house recovered art), he added, is also being considered.

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Once Smuggled Out of Iraq, the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet Has Been Seized by U.S. Authorities and Will Be Returned

A U.S. District Court in New York has ordered the craft chain Hobby Lobby to forfeit the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, a rare cuneiform text from ancient Mesopotamia that was smuggled into the country from Iraq, so that it may be returned.

The company’s founder, Steve Green, bought the 3,500-year-old Akkadian artifact in 2014. The purchase was intended for the then-forthcoming Museum of the Bible, in Washington, D.C. But the collection the Evangelical billionaire amassed turned out to be chock full of looted antiquities, the Gilgamesh Dream tablet chief among them.

“This forfeiture represents an important milestone on the path to returning this rare and ancient masterpiece of world literature to its country of origin,” acting U.S. Attorney Jacquelyn M. Kasulis for the Eastern District of New York said in a statement. “This office is committed to combating the black-market sale of cultural property and the smuggling of looted artifacts.”

The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet is so named because it contains a segment from the Epic of Gilgamesh, believed to be one the world’s oldest religious texts, in which the poem’s titular hero recounts his dreams to his mother. The poem was of interest to the Museum of the Bible because it also speaks of a great flood, similar to the story of Noah’s ark in Genesis, the first book of the Old Testament.

The cuneiform tablet known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, which was recently seized by the US Government. Courtesy the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

The cuneiform tablet known as the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, which was seized by the U.S. government. Courtesy the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

The artifact is one of approximately 17,000 looted artifacts that the U.S. has agreed to repatriate to Iraq, a “result of months of efforts by the Iraqi authorities in conjunction with their embassy in Washington,” Iraqi Culture Minister Hassan Nazim said in a press conference today, reports Agence France Presse. “This is the largest return of antiquities to Iraq.”

The bulk of the objects will fly with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi when he leaves Washington, D.C., on Thursday, following a visit with President Joe Biden earlier this week. It is not clear if the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet will be among them, or returned separately.

Christie’s auction house brokered the $1.67 million private sale of the artifact to Green. The seller was an art dealer who offered as provenance a letter stating the work had been purchased at San Francisco’s Butterfield & Butterfield auction house in 1981, included in a box of ancient bronze fragments that had been deaccessioned by a small museum.

One of the thousands of looted ancient artifacts that Hobby Lobby returned to the Republic of Iraq. Photo courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

One of the thousands of looted ancient artifacts that Hobby Lobby returned to the Republic of Iraq. Photo courtesy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In fact, the works were sold in London by Jordanian antiquities dealer Ghassan Rihani for just over $50,000 in 2003. An unidentified dealer smuggled the objects to the U.S., and concocted the phony provenance, falsifying the auction records. (The Gilgamesh Dream Tablet changed hands several times before making it way to Hobby Lobby.)

Importing the tablet was a violation of the Emergency Protection for Iraqi Cultural Antiquities Act, enacted by the U.S. in 2004 to stem the flow of looted Iraqi antiquities. Cultural objects removed from Iraq after the start of the Gulf War in August 1990 are prohibited from entering the county. (Last year, the Iraqi Ministry of Culture announced that it was investigating the artifact’s origins, and that it might have stolen from a regional museum followed the U.S. invasion in 1991.)

The U.S. government seized the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet in September 2019, with the Department of Justice calling it “stolen Iraqi property” in a legal complaint.

Hobby Lobby has already been forced to restitute over 11,000 artifacts—mostly papyrus fragments, cuneiform tablets, and clay seals—to Egypt and Iraq. The company, which was forced to pay a $3 million fine, has filed lawsuits against Christie’s for the sale of the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet and an Oxford University classics professor alleged to have sold the company ancient Bible fragments that were stolen.

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