Italy to crack down on art crime after stolen artefacts recovered in USA

Three ancient artefacts have been returned to Italy by US officials this week after they were traced to an auction house in New York.

Italy to crack down on art crime after stolen artefacts recovered in USA
The badge of the Italian Carabinieri del Comando Tutela Patrimonio Culturale, also known as the 'Art Squad'. Photo: Carabinieri

The clampdown on cultural crimes comes after several high-profile repatriations of Italian art and antiquities taken abroad and recovered only after being put up for auction.

The announcement came as three artefacts recovered in the USA were returned to the Italian government in a repatriation ceremony in Washington DC.

The ancient Greek items – a wine carafe, a decanter for precious oils and a soup tureen – had been illegally dug out of an archaeological site in Italy and smuggled into the US, where they were listed for sale at a New York auction house.

Eagle-eyed Italian Carabinieri officers, from the country’s famous ‘art squad’ or cultural heritage unit, alerted the FBI after spotting auction listings for the items while doing a routine daily check of online auctions.

Artifacts on display during the ceremony at the headquarters of the Italian Embassy in Washington. Photo: Italian Embassy in Washington.

The items were handed back to Italy in a ceremony at the headquarters of the Italian Embassy in Washington, where Italy’s culture minister announced the government would be cracking down on such crimes.

READ ALSO: Italy's 'Art Squad' charges hoarder of rare Roman coins

“We want to introduce laws on specific crimes so there are stiffer penalties applied to crimes against cultural heritage, which is a fundamental part of our identity,” said the Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli.

Along with the government’s new draft law, he said Italy would soon be ratifying the Nicosia convention, an international agreement establishing penalties for offences such as unlawful excavation, importation and exportation, illegal acquisition and sale of cultural artefacts.

The ceremony marked more than 15 years of collaboration between Italy and the US in the fight against the illegal trafficking of stolen artefacts. 

Art crime is a huge problem in Italy, where artworks are stolen from unguarded churches and even from secure museums, and illegal excavations can uncover valuable historical treasures.

Over one million artworks are currently listed as missing or stolen.

Italy became the first country in the world to create a specialized police force to combat cultural crimes back in 1969.

The three items were the latest of 16 precious art and archaeological artifacts recovered in the US and returned to Italy over the last two years.

Last month, the London Metropolitan police also returned two Etruscan treasures stolen from Italy.

The return and protection of Italian cultural items has been a stated aim of the country’s populist government made up of the Five Star Movement (5SM), of which Bonisoli is a member, and the League.

READ ALSO: Built by Caligula and smuggled to the US, a long-lost Roman mosaic finally returns to Italy


Italy’s government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

Italy's new government issued a decree on Thursday to continue sending weapons to Ukraine through 2023, continuing the previous administration's policy of support to Kyiv.

Italy's government to continue sending weapons to Ukraine in 2023

The decree extends to December 31, 2023 an existing authorisation for “the transfer of military means, materials and equipment to the government authorities of Ukraine,” according to a government statement.

Since taking office in October, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has repeatedly voiced her support for Kyiv while underlying the importance of the Atlantic alliance.

In her first speech to parliament, the leader of the Brothers of Italy party pledged to “continue to be a reliable partner of NATO in supporting Ukraine.”

Her predecessor Mario Draghi was a staunch supporter of Kyiv, but the issue of sending arms to Ukraine split the biggest party in parliament during his coalition government, the Five Star Movement.

That friction led to the early elections that brought Meloni to power.

Parliament now has 60 days to vote the decree into law.

READ ALSO: Outcry in Italy after Berlusconi defends Putin’s invasion of Ukraine

Despite Meloni’s efforts to reassure her Western allies of Italy’s support for the EU’s and NATO’s Ukraine strategy, including sanctions on Russia, the close ties to Russia of her two coalition partners have come under scrutiny.

Both Matteo Salvini of the League party and former premier Silvio Berlusconi, who leads Forza Italia, have long enjoyed warm relations with Russia.

In October, an audio tape of Berlusconi was leaked to the media in which the former premier described how he had received a birthday present of vodka from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the tape, he also expressed concerns about sending weapons and cash to Kyiv and appeared to blame the war on Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Berlusconi later issued a statement saying his personal position on Ukraine “does not deviate” from that of Italy and the EU.

Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Salvini, too, has come under fire for his relations with Moscow, including a report that he dined with Russia’s ambassador to Rome just days after that country’s invasion of Ukraine.

Salvini, who has criticised EU sanctions as ineffective, has long admired Putin, even wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the Russian leader’s face.