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 remembers murdered anti-mafia judge Falcone

Italy commemorated the death of Italian judge Giovanni Falcone on Monday, thirty years after the brutal Capaci bombing.

Italy remembers murdered anti-mafia judge Falcone

The entire country paid tribute on Monday to anti-mafia judge Giovanni Falcone, killed by the Sicilian mafia 30 years ago in a car bomb murder that shocked the country.

Interior Minister Luciana Lamorgese laid a wreath at the memorial at the site of the blast at Capaci, near Palermo, that killed Falcone, his wife, and three members of his police escort on May 23rd 1992.

Another ceremony in Palermo was attended by Italian President Sergio Mattarella, whose brother Piersanti, then Sicily’s regional president, was also murdered by the mafia.

In a statement, Prime Minister Mario Draghi hailed the legacy of Falcone, saying that thanks to his “courage, professionalism and determination, Italy has become a freer and fairer country”.

He said Falcone and his colleagues – one of whom, Paolo Borsellino, was killed by Cosa Nostra two months later – “dealt decisive blows against the mafia”.

“Their heroism had rooted anti-mafia values in society, in new generations, in republican institutions,” he added, saying the “relentless fight against organised crime and […] the search for truth” must continue.

The mob used a skateboard to place a 500-kilogramme (1100-pound) charge of TNT and ammonium nitrate in a tunnel under the motorway which linked the airport to the centre of Palermo.

Falcone, driving a white Fiat Croma, was returning from Rome for the weekend. At a look-out point on the hill above, a mobster nicknamed “The Pig” pressed the remote control button as the judge’s three-car convoy passed.

The blast ripped through the asphalt, shredding bodies and metal, and flinging the lead car several hundred metres.

READ ALSO: How murdered judge Giovanni Falcone shaped Italy’s fight against the mafia

On July 19th, Borsellino was also killed in a car bomb attack, along with five members of his escort. Only his driver survived.

Falcone posed a real threat to Cosa Nostra, an organised crime group made famous by The Godfather trilogy, and which boasted access to the highest levels of Italian power.

He and Borsellino were later credited with revolutionising the understanding of the mafia, working closely with the first informants and compiling evidence for a groundbreaking ‘maxi-trial’ in which hundreds of mobsters were convicted in 1987.

“Thanks to Falcone and Borsellino, the Sicilian mafia became a notorious fact, not something that had to be proved to exist at every trial,” anti-mafia prosecutor Marzia Sabella told AFP.