A ‘Good Percentage’ of Ancient Artifacts Recently Repatriated to Italy Are Fakes, According to an Antiquities Expert 

Some of the nearly 60 pieces returned to Italy came from the Met. Others were owned by the disgraced collector Michael Steinhardt. 

Italian leaders welcome back nearly 60 ancient artifacts repatriated from the U.S. during a ceremony held in Rome in January, 2023. Courtesy of the Italian Ministry of Culture.

In a ceremony held in Rome earlier this year, Italy welcomed back nearly 60 ancient artifacts that had been repatriated from the U.S. Experts estimated the objects to be worth more than $19 million, but for the European country, they represented something even more. 

“For us Italians, the value of these artworks, which is the value of our historic and cultural identity, is incalculable,” said Vincenzo Molinese, head of the Carabinieri Art Squad, at the time. 

But maybe they’re not worth that much after all. At least not according to Italian archaeologist Gianfranco Adornato, who wrote in a recent report that a “good percentage” of the returned relics are “easily recognizable fakes.” 

In an article published last month in Il Giornale dell’Arte, the experts points to several suspicious pieces, including a 500 B.C.E. cup adorned with eyes and a Dionysian mask. The vessel has “an unconventional foot clumsily attached to the tank,” Adornato says. The markings show a “strange pattern of the eyes, devoid of the long tear caruncles [that are] characteristic of this vascular typology,” while the painted mask “is simplified with cursory and imprecise graffiti.”  

Another cup, hailing from the second half of the sixth century B.C.E., has two decorative monsters “in a totally wrong pose” that has not been found on vases from its time period, per Adornato. For the archeologist, the question goes beyond these individual artifacts. He concludes his report with a question about what the “investment of resources and energy in the recovery of fake antiquities purchased on the black market” means for the state’s efforts in tracking down illegally stolen cultural heritage.  

“What will they do?” he asks of the Carabinieri art squad, public museums, and other groups involved in the effort. 

For Americans, the repatriation of these and 50 other objects to Italy was of particular significance, and not just because of their supposed value.  

More than 20 of the pieces, including a marble Head of Athena that dates back to 200 B.C.E., were seized from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, according to the Art Newspaper. Several others had been owned by Michael Steinhardt, a billionaire who agreed to an unprecedented lifetime ban from acquiring antiquities in 2021 after a multiyear investigation into his collecting practices. 

 

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