A trove of antiquities confiscated from major museums and private collections across the U.S., and valued at a combined $10 million, have been repatriated to Italy, the Manhattan district attorney’s office announced Wednesday. Among the works seized were a 2,500-year-old ceramic vessel from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles; nearly a hundred Greco-Roman artifacts valued at $2 million from Fordham University in the Bronx; and a terracotta goddess from the New York-based Merrin Gallery. 150 artifacts were linked to Edoardo Almagià, a 70-year-old Rome-based antiquities dealer accused of orchestrating a three-decades-long smuggling operation.
“For years, prestigious museums and private collectors across the United States prominently displayed these Italian historical treasures even though their very presence in America constituted evidence of cultural heritage crimes,” the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said in a statement.
The Italy native is accused, among other things, of using tomb raiders to loot and illegally transport hundreds of artifacts into the United States and filing false customs forms. According to the New York Times, Almagià both denied all the allegations against him and downplayed the severity of the import violations.
“Why are they doing this now, I wonder,” he said, referring to the investigation. He added: “So much money is being spent to persecute dealers when it can be used to repair Italian museums, where so many similar items are already at risk.”
Almagià’s troubles with Italian and American authorities over suspect antiquities dealings dates back to at least 1996 and were cited in the investigation against billionaire Michael H. Steinhardt, who earlier this month surrendered 180 stolen objects, 10 of which were directly purchased from Almagià.
According to the district attorney’s office, the individuals and institutions involved surrendered the artifacts willingly after reviewing the evidence against Almagià. Some, like the Cleveland Museum of Art, purchased items directly from Almagià, who lived in New York between 1980 and 2006.
The Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art at Fordham University, surrendered 96 items, the most of any institution. The works were donated in 2007 by the alumnus William D. Walsh, who had no knowledge of their dubious provenance, according to investigators. The donation, which included a terracotta hydria, or water jar, valued at $150,000 and 26 well-preserved pieces of pottery, allowed the university to establish a free museum and teaching institution dedicated to studying the materials and culture of the ancient Mediterranean world.
In a statement, Fordham described the repatriation of the items as an “appropriate action.”
“Since Fordham received the antiquities in 2007,” the statement added, “it has been transparent regarding the objects’ provenance or lack thereof, including the publication of a catalog in 2012, in part so that other researchers had full access to the relevant information about the collection. The University still has more than 200 antiquities in its collection, which will be reorganized to optimize their use in Fordham’s teaching museum.”
The San Antonio Museum of Art, which relinquished a group of Greco-Roman pottery and drinking vessels, said, “We are pleased that the District Attorney has formally announced that the objects will now be returned to the government of Italy. We will continue to work actively to remedy any legitimate ownership claims of which the museum becomes aware.”