Return of Archaeological Treasure to Italy: An 80 Million Euro Heritage

Culture - June 7, 2024

An ancient treasure, the result of illegal operations, had reached the United States and now, finally found its way home, Italy.

This is a collection of inestimable archaeological value, whose estimate is around 80 million euros. This precious treasure, made up of coins, ancient weapons, bronze statues and terracotta pieces, covers a vast time span ranging from 800 BC. until the 4th century. Its origins are distributed across different Italian regions: Campania, Calabria, Puglia, Sicily and Lazio.

The story of how this treasure ended up in the United States is complex and varied. Many of the artifacts were stolen from tombs and archaeological sites through illegal excavations. Other works instead ended up in private collections, often purchased by unaware collectors convinced of their legal provenance. These practices have deprived Italy not only of the artifacts themselves, but also of the historical and cultural context they represent, losing valuable archaeological information.

The recovery of this treasure was possible thanks to the collaboration between the Italian and American law enforcement agencies. The Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage played a fundamental role in the investigations, working in synergy with the Swoods (Stolen Works of Art Detection System), a system based on artificial intelligence. This innovative tool, active since 2023, has been instrumental in the identification and recovery of stolen works of art.

The application of artificial intelligence in the field of art recovery represents a significant step forward. Swoods, in fact, is a program that uses advanced algorithms to analyse and identify stolen works of art. Data collection and analysis was handled by the Art Trafficking Unit (ATU) in Manhattan District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos’ office. Thanks to this technological approach, the authorities have managed to trace and confiscate numerous stolen works of art, returning them to their legitimate owners.

The process of returning the treasure to Italy was long and complex, but in the end the most just and correct decision was reached. This success is an important signal in the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural goods. “When an artifact is taken from a clandestine tomb, it is never catalogued,” Commander Francesco Gargaro explained to CNN. “This means that, in addition to the object itself, its historical context is also stolen. Archaeologists are deprived of valuable information.”

Among the most precious pieces of the returned treasure is a bronze statue made by the Umbrian tribe, kept in incredibly good condition. There are also some bronze heads, made about 2400 years ago, and a mosaic floor depicting the myth of Orpheus, dating back to the 3rd or 4th century AD. These artifacts not only represent significant economic value, but are also witnesses to ancient cultures and civilizations, offering an insight into the life and art of bygone eras.

The importance of this recovery goes beyond the simple physical return of the works. It represents a victory in the protection of cultural and historical heritage, demonstrating how international collaboration and the use of advanced technologies can effectively combat the illicit trafficking of cultural goods. “Preventing looting at the source is very difficult,” Bogdanos said. “This is almost always done by people who know the area very well. At a certain point, however, the trade reaches the channels of art traffickers. That’s where we can intercept them.”

The Manhattan ATU has played a crucial role in the recovery of over a thousand artifacts from 27 different countries. Of these, 278 were of Italian origin, 307 Indian, 133 Pakistani, 16 Egyptian and 55 Greek. This demonstrates the scale of the problem of illicit trafficking in works of art and the importance of a global and coordinated approach to combat it.

It is a tangible example of how technology, combined with international cooperation, can play a fundamental role in protecting our cultural heritage. This event is a reminder of the need for continued vigilance and concerted efforts to preserve and protect the treasures of the past for future generations.


Alessandro Fiorentino