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  • Writer's pictureGerriann Brower

Afterthoughts on the Illicit Art Trade

Updated: Aug 27, 2022

It is no surprise that art has been looted from Italy.

Pause to consider Italy’s rich cultural heritage (as of 2019):

55 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (the same number as China, although Italy’s landmass is much smaller)

5,000 museums, galleries, and archives

2,000 archaeological zones

100,000 churches

20,000 castles

10,000 Etruscan tombs

Supply and Demand

There has been an academic and media focus on the looting of Etruscan art. It was highly marketable and readily available with thousands of tombs in central Italy. What happens when the Etruscan tombs have been excavated, ransacked, and are no longer a viable source of objects? You move on to Sicily and Southern Italy in search of red-figured Apulian vases. That is what happened in the 1960s and 1970s. An estimated 10-20,000 tombs were raided in Southern Italy. If the tombaroli (tomb robbers) were lucky, they dug up an aristocrat with 100 vases, whereas an ordinary person might only have one or two.

There are two types of ancient painted terracotta vases, those with figures painted in black, and those with red paint. The red-figured vases are considered more desirable as the definition of expression, physical characteristics, and clothing are more visible. The red paint stands out more on the black background. The tombaroli went in search of Apulian red-figured vases by using long metal poles to pierce the earth until it reached a tomb. Unfortunately, damage was done not only to the art, but to the entire archaeological site.

The chain of command for looting remained fairly consistent with key players of Giacomo Medici (and a few other middle men) and dealers (see previous post "Finders Keepers"). The Getty Museum was a principal buyer along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Getty purchased seventy Apulian vase from 1971-1987. Experts think about 20,000 Apulian vases are owned by museums or individuals. Sixty percent of those are in Italy and forty percent outside Italy, mostly in the U.S. and U.K.

Terracotta Column-Krater, c. 360-350 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of New York, open access.
Terracotta Column-Krater, c. 360-350 BCE, Metropolitan Museum of New York, open access.

The krater pictured here was used to mix water and wine, and according to the Met website has a skimpy provenance listed as: Greek, Southern Italian, Apulian. The twenty-inch-tall krater was purchased by the Met from notorious art dealer Robert Hecht in 1950. Hecht was later convicted of dealing in stolen goods and this is a highly suspicious early example of his connections to Southern Italian tomb robbers. There is no published ownership prior to Hecht and the Met. The subject matter makes this krater so unique. A painter is applying red wax pigment to a white statue of Hercules. There are very few depictions of Greek artists at work. Hercules himself looks on to the right, surrounded by Nike above him, and to the left Zeus on the upper region and a boy tending the brazier.

Academic research played a part in helping us understand the scope of Apulian vase trafficking. A study by Chippindale and Gill of auction houses in New York and London revealed that 78-98 percent of these vases sold in the mid to late 1990s had no provenance. Auction houses countered by claiming they might have been kept in a family for years. In that case, why isn’t there documentation? Seventy percent of vases that listed some kind of provenance did so in very ambiguous geographic terms, i.e. said to be from Italy, or Southern Italy. Sometimes provenances creatively improved over time so that when the object landed in a prominent museum it had a findspot that appeared legit but arrived at without research or documents. Dr. Christopher Chippindale, archaeologist at Cambridge, accurately described the state of antiquities looting. “However bad you feared it would be, it always turns out worse.”

Looting Today

I would have hoped that following the trials of Marion True, Robert Hecht, and Giacomo Medici in the early-2000s there would have been a falloff in art trafficking. However, it’s still happening, although it’s gotten a lot more difficult for the tombaroli, criminal dealers, and purchasers. In the Pompeii area alone in 2020, during the pandemic, the Italian art squad discovered 24 illegal archaeological sites, and over 17,000 items were recovered. Sixty-eight tombaroli were arrested.

In 2017 the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office seized a number of objects from a midtown Manhattan dealer. Rare objects such as Sardinian bronzes from the eighth century BCE were recovered and returned to Italy. The DA’s office recovered other Italian and South Asian objects and repatriated them to their countries of origin. This wouldn’t have been possible without international cooperation.

The FBI, ICE, US Customs and Border Protection, Homeland Security, Interpol, and the Italian Carabinieri now have improved coordination to increase trafficking and detection. And now, social media and apps can assist in locating looted art.

Fragment of Myron’s Samian Athena, 1st-2nd century CE. Photo, Department of Justice.
Fragment of Myron’s Samian Athena, 1st-2nd century CE. Photo, Department of Justice.

Keeping up with Looted Art

Two current looting cases point out the difficulties in identifying and returning contested art. Court documents claim that a looted statue illegally smuggled to the U.S. was part of a five-ton shipment with forty some items that were seized by U.S. officials in June 2016. TV celebrity Kim Kardashian was listed as the consignee doing business as Noel Roberts Trust, an entity related to Kardashian and her now estranged husband, Kayne West. The marble statue in question, called Fragment of Myron's Samian Athena, is a half a statue, a draped figure from the waist down. It lacks a torso, arms, and head. Italian archaeologists examined the sculpture and determined it was looted and illegally transferred out of Italy. Consequently, the U.S. government and Italy determined it had been illegally taken and request its return.

Officials became suspicious when the provenance provided by the logistics importer had several contradictory statements from different gallery invoices regarding the statue’s description, size, and history of ownership. The statue came from a series of gallery transactions which claim their sales were all in good faith. They were stunned by the forfeiture proceedings. A Kardashian spokesperson claims she never purchased the piece and was unaware of the statue, declaring someone else purchased it under her name. She later made a statement that her estranged husband may have purchased the statue.

This raises some questions about the buyer’s responsibilities when purchasing antiquities, the credibility of galleries, and how government officials make the looting determination. How can the buyer know the art was smuggled? Should a buyer be informed by the gallery of the possibility it was looted? The art galleries remain an easy pass through of illicit art for unsuspecting buyers. If the art is looted and returned, what are the penalties? Usually, the consignee has to pay court fees, return the art, and is not refunded their purchase.

A Boat, a Book, and a Coffee Table

Caligula (r. 37-41) was an unpopular Roman emperor. Part of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, his nephew was Nero. His rule started out uneventful but soon morphed into one of excess and cruelty. Caligula was assassinated in Rome in an unsuccessful effort to restore the Republic. Claudius succeeded him. During Caligula’s brief rule he amassed power and luxury as emperor. One of his many extravagant indulgences was constructing two large ships for recreation. They were floated in Lake Nemi and decorated in expensive bronzes and marbles. About twenty miles south of Rome, Lake Nemi is a small body of water, originally about sixty feet deep. The largest ship was the size of a passenger airplane, about 240 feet long. They lake wasn’t navigable by such large ships, or linked to other waterways, so the boats were made as massive party pontoons for decadent pleasure.

When an unpopular emperor is assassinated, there is a concerted effort to obliterate his memory by destroying any monuments he made. The ships were sunk, but became legend in the lake for a thousand years. Benito Mussolini, the Fascist Italian dictator, decided to spare no expense and recover the Nemi ships in the 1930s. Mussolini felt a deep connection to the Roman past and spared no expense to align the heyday of ancient Rome to his Fascist ideals. He had the lake drained and built a museum to house the remains of the ships and their luxurious artifacts. The museum burnt in 1944 at the end of World War II, just as Mussolini lost power in the waning years of the war, and the German army was in retreat.

Mosaic from Caligula’s Ship, c. 35 CE, Museo delle Navi (Museum of Roman Ships), Rome, photo Paulo Santalucia, AP. The mosaic is unveiled in the museum.
Mosaic from Caligula’s Ship, c. 35 CE, Museo delle Navi (Museum of Roman Ships), Rome, photo Paulo Santalucia, AP. The mosaic is unveiled in the museum..

One of the valuable decorations from the largest boat was a mosaic floor made with rare porphyry marble. The intricate geometric design in purple, green, and white, measuring 1.5 square meters, or about four-by-four feet, has four circular red-purple porphyry pieces and four oval or petal shaped inlaid designs. Somehow it entered the art market in the 1960s and was purchased by New York antiquities dealer Helen Fioratti and her husband, Italian Nereo Fioratti. They had it mounted on a platform and used it as a coffee table in their Fifth Avenue Manhattan apartment.

Along comes Professor Dario Del Bufalo, architect, expert on rare marbles, and author of a 2013 book Porphyry. He is giving a lecture in a Manhattan store promoting his book, which contained a photograph of the Nemi ship marble with the caption “location unknown.” Dario also had a photograph of the marble from the 1960s Italian art dealer. An attendee at the lecture told Dario, “That’s Helen’s marble,” and Dario said, “Who is Helen?” An investigation ensued, with a search warrant, and involvement from the Manhattan D.A., Italian art police, and U.S. authorities.

The Fioratti’s said they purchased it from an aristocratic family, couldn’t remember how much they paid for it, and had no papers regarding the sale or import. It was all done through a friend of a friend. As an antiquities dealer, should she have suspected it could have been looted? Even an Art History 101 student could see the uniqueness of the mosaic. Manhattan prosecutors and the Italian police believe it was removed from Mussolini’s museum prior to the fire in the chaos of World War II. The marble piece was seized from the Fioratti’s in late 2017 and returned to Italy where it went on display in March 2021 in the Museum of Roman Ships.

Ms. Fioratti did not want to fight the seizure of the illegally obtained art, saying it was purchased in good faith and was one of their favorite pieces in their home. She also said she could have made a fortune re-selling it, sounding somewhat regretful that she hadn’t. She also claimed Italy should award her a “legion of honour for not fighting” the repatriation.

The mosaic required a deep cleaning. Evidently, the Fiorattis did not always use coasters. Coffee, tea, calcium stains from vases and glasses had left their marks on the precious stones.

Mosaic from Caligula’s Ship, detail, c. 35 CE, Museo delle Navi (Museum of Roman Ships), Rome, photo, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.
Mosaic from Caligula’s Ship, detail, c. 35 CE, Museo delle Navi (Museum of Roman Ships), Rome, photo, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.

You Too Can be an Art Detective

Interpol has launched a stolen works of art data base and launched a mobile app called ID-Art which utilizes image recognition technology to document art or cultural heritage as well as detect stolen or trafficked art. Users can also use the app to snap a photo and see if it matches any known stolen art work in their database.

Organizations Documenting and Fighting the Illicit Art Trade Worldwide:

Trafficking Culture Twitter: @CultureTraffic

Interdisciplinary international organization researching and tracing trafficked illicit art worldwide.

Law professor Dr. Derek Fincham updates art thefts, scholarship, looting, and legal information.

Association for Research into Crimes Against Art Twitter: @ARCA_artcrime An international study and research association promoting cultural heritage protection. They publish the Journal of Art Crime and offer courses in cultural heritage protection and provenance.

The Antiquities Coalition Twitter: @CombatLooting

Fighting cultural racketeering, illicit ancient art trade and developing international policies where art is not sold to finance crime, terror, and conflict.


Atwood, Roger. Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers, and the Looting of the Ancient World. St. Martin’s Press, 2004.

Carlson, Deborah N. “Caligula’s Floating Palaces.” Archaeology, vol 55, vol 3, 26-31.

Greenberger, Alex. “U.S. Government Seeks Forfeiture of Roman Statue that was Allegedly en Route to Kim Kardashian.” ArtNews, May 4, 2021.

McKinley, James C., Jr. “A Remnant from Caligula’s Ship, Once a Coffee Table, Heads Home. New York Times, October 17, 2017.

“8th Century B.C.E. Bronze Statues Among Collection of Ancient Artifacts Being Repatriated to Italian Republic by Manhattan District Attorney’s Office.” Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, May 25, 2017. Press Release.

Rae, Naomi. “Kim Kardashian Must Forfeit an Ancient Roman Sculpture That Experts Say was Looted from Italy.” Artnet News, May 4, 2021.

Santalucia, Paolo, and Nicole Winfield. “Emperor’s Mosaic Displayed in Italy after Stint as NYC Table.” APNews, March 11, 2021.

Stapley-Brown, Victoria, and Helen Stoilas. “Mosaic Floor from Caligula’s Ship Returned to Italy.” The Art Newspaper, October 23, 2017.

Watson, Peter. The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy’s Tomb Raiders to the World’s Greatest Museums. Public Affairs, 2007.

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