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Ancient art repatriated in Italy reveals trend in illicit artifacts

Updated: Jun 27, 2021

Approximately 800 rare artifacts were seized by Italian police from a Belgian collector’s estate on June 21st. The sheer number of recovered artifacts are baffling, the price of each artifact labeled as “inestimable value.” This repatriation is considered the most extensive operation of its kind in Belgium.

Hundreds of Apulian artifacts were seized by authorities, now protected by law. img. src. Carabinieri Nucleo Tutela Patrimonio Culturale


Items dating from the 6th century BCE were recovered incidentally during a cultural heritage protection unit’s investigation into a Belgian collector’s ownership of a Daunian stele (stone monument). The stele was set to travel between museums internationally during the mid-1990s, though a central piece of the stele was missing. Investigators noted that the piece appeared to match a fragment held in an Italian museum, and secured a warrant to search the owner’s collection in an attempt to recover the stele. The piece was eventually reunited with the stele upon investigating the owner’s residence in Antwerp, confirming the two a direct match.


However, authorities also discovered a vast array of illegally exported art on the premises, hundreds of other Daunian steles and pottery excavated from nationally protected tombs in Puglia, the historical region of Daunia. “During the course of the search, a veritable ‘archaeological treasure’ was recovered, consisting of hundreds of Apulian figurative ceramic finds and other Daunian stelae, all illegally exported from Italy, which were then seized in Belgium,” said a press statement from authorities in Puglia. The act of looting remains a problem for historians and cultural heritage protection authorities internationally, such as locating valuables stolen from Egyptian mausoleums. Being unable to identify when artifacts are stolen and if or where they were sold (or even destroyed) leads to centuries of lost material.

Illegally excavated or exported art, known as illicit antiquities, can obscure the cultural context of where the piece originates. The displacement of artifacts is a paramount issue that archeologists face, as finding artifacts far removed from their native region can cause difficulties in concluding the purpose or time period of a site.


Daunian steles excavated in southeast Italy. img. src. beyondforeignness.org


Typically, looters will take advantage of times of war, disease, natural disaster, or political instability to scour sites. Historically, changes in power between dynasties (most commonly in Ancient Egypt) have led to increased incidents, most evidently tomb raids of pharaohs. In our current world, COVID-19 has given looters opportunities to pilfer closed excavation sites typically abandoned or shorthanded with security. As the pandemic continues to upend the usual protective measures necessary to preserve artifacts, thieves will continue to illegally obtain and trade artifacts. Tracking movements can be made easier by tracing online groups where individuals will attempt to sell artifacts, wherein interception can occur. However, underground trading or private cataloging is likely to remain a difficult obstacle for authorities in the foreseeable future.


The Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale serves as the art police of Italy, recovering artifacts through international investigations. img src. periodicodaily.com

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