Residents, tourists, and archaeologists have hailed construction of Rome’s newest metro line–not only will it improve transportation across the city, it has also uncovered some striking archaeological finds, including bronze coins, pottery, and 2,000-year-old military barracks complete with mosaic flooring. While these discoveries further enrich our understanding of ancient Rome and add to the tapestry of Italy’s cultural heritage, such chance finds also face great danger. Italian patrimony has long been threatened by looting, with many priceless artifacts disappearing into the black market. These finds demonstrate how much of Italy’s past still remain uncovered, and thus at risk of falling into the wrong hands, only to be later sold to finance criminal activity or even terrorism.
Looting in Italy has been so dire that in 2001 a bilateral agreement was signed by the Italian and U.S. governments to protect the country’s heritage, imposing import restrictions on pre-Classical, Classical, and Imperial Roman archaeological materials in stone, metal, ceramic, glass, and painting. Later amended to include ancient coins, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) remains in effect until 2021, when Italy will again have the chance to renew. Another extension will likely be needed, as, despite international cooperation to stem the tide of looted antiquities, Italy’s heritage remains under threat.
A string of recent cases illustrates the peril to Italian patrimony even after the signing of the MOU. Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino’s 2011 book Chasing Aphrodite details how the Getty Museum bought looted Italian artifacts for years, ending in the trial of its antiquities curator in Italy and the return of a number of objects in the Getty’s collection. Today, the Getty Museum is entrenched in a legal battle over its “Victorious Youth” statue discovered off the coast of Italy, as Italian courts demand the bronze’s restitution. In the summer of 2017, a 2,300-year-old krater was returned by the Met after it was suspected of being looted. Most recently, the Italian Carabinieri, in cooperation with police units in Germany, the UK, and Spain, busted a decades-old international smuggling ring dealing in plundered Sicilian antiquities. Massive raids, as part of a sting dubbed Operation Demetra, resulted in at least forty-one detainments and the seizure of more than 25,000 objects. In fact, in a speech at the Smithsonian hosted by the Antiquities Coalition, Brigadier General Fabrizio Parrulli, head of the Carabinieri’s cultural heritage division, estimated that just in the last year, the Carabinieri seized around 300 million euros worth of stolen and illegally excavated artworks. Despite an MOU, repatriations, arrests, and seizures, looting shows little sign of slowing down in Italy.
Thankfully, Italy has a specialized police unit in cultural property, the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (Carabinieri TPC). Established in 1969 as the world’s first art crime squad, the Carabinieri TPC works to combat theft, illegal excavations of archaeological sites, and trafficking and counterfeiting of stolen property. Operation Demetra is just one example of the Carabinieri TPC’s success in combating the global trade in illicit Italian antiquities and in protecting their nation’s history.
The Carabinieri’s fight to protect Italian heritage has spanned decades and will probably last decades more. Archaeological discoveries, like the ones lying under the yet-to-be-completed C line, are constant, revealing entire new troves of precious artifacts that can easily land in the hands of looters. When an object is stolen, potential knowledge gained through them is lost since they require careful study, and plundered treasures often quickly vanish from the market to be hidden away in private collections or storage facilities. Despite their diligent work, the Carabinieri cannot prevent the massive scale of looting in Italy alone. Protecting Italian heritage requires the collaboration of archaeologists, customs officials, dealers, collectors, and international police, because when Italy loses its past, so does the world. Antiquities tell us so much about ourselves–where we have come from, the achievements we have made, the bounds of human innovation and artistic creativity–and are worth our shared efforts for their protection.
Ali Tyler is an intern at the Antiquities Coalition and a student at George Washington University, where she studies art history. If you are interested in interning at the Antiquities Coalition please send a resume and cover letter to firstname.lastname@example.org.