The U.S. Has Returned 266 Ancient Artifacts, Including Roman Coins and Etruscan Tile Paintings, to Italy

The objects were variously connected to Italian smugglers, the disgraced dealer Robin Symes, and the collector Shelby White.

A collection of looted antiquities returned to Italy in a repatriation ceremony held in New York on August 8, 2023. Courtesy of the Italian Ministry of Culture.

For the second time this year, the United States has repatriated a collection of looted antiquities to Italy. 

In total, 266 artifacts—including Etruscan tile paintings from 440 B.C.E., a calyx-krater from 335 B.C.E., and ancient Roman coins buried in the late third or early fourth century C.E.—were handed over in a ceremony held in New York on August 8. Together they’re estimated to be worth “tens of millions of Euros,” according to the Italian Ministry of Culture. 

Of these, 42 objects worth $3.5 million were recovered by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and cleared for return in recent months. Many had been trafficked by the infamous Italian smugglers Giacomo Medici, Giovanni Franco Becchina, and Edoardo Almagià, and were sold through the disgraced British art dealer Robin Symes or purchased by the American collector Shelby White. 

“We continue to undo the damage wrought by decades of well-organized antiquities-smuggling networks throughout Italy,” Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg said in a statement. “I am proud that we have successfully repatriated more than 200 antiquities to Italy since I took office, but there is a lot more work to be done.” 

A joint announcement from the Italian Ministry of Culture and the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage explained that an additional 145 pieces were seized as part of an investigation into Symes, while 65 others came from the Menil Collection in Houston, Texas—a claim the museum promptly denied. 

When reached by Artnet News, a spokesperson for the institution clarified that the 65 relics in question were offered to the Menil “as a gift from an individual” but “have never been part of museum’s collection.”  

The representative said that before accepting antiquities gifts, the museum asks donors to contact the country of origin to provide proof of title. “In this case, the individual had inherited the objects and had documentation indicating that the objects had been in the United States since the mid-1950s. The donor contacted the Ministry of Culture per the recommendation of the museum, complied with the Ministry’s decision, and facilitated the repatriation of the artifacts without protest.” 

The objects connected to Symes have been on the Carabinieri’s radar for years. In May, the country recovered 750 archaeological relics worth an estimated €12 million ($13 million) after a 17-year-long legal battle with the dealer, who was once a key intermediary in an international smuggling ring.  

The month’s repatriation marks the latest in a string of recent collaborations between Bragg’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit (ATU) and the Carabinieri. The DA’s Office returned 60 artifacts worth roughly $19 million to Italy in January of this year, and 142 pieces worth $14 million last July.  

Since Bragg was elected DA in 2021, the ATU has recovered nearly 850 antiquities stolen from 27 countries and valued at over $170 million. 


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