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Authorities Uncover Stolen Ancient Roman Sarcophagus Lid in New York

by Jillian Steinhauer on February 27, 2014

The stolen sarcophagus (image courtesy United States Attorney's Office)

The stolen sarcophagus in question: sleeping woman from a kline (couch) monument (Roman Imperial, 2nd century C.E.), marble, 166 x 52 x 79 cm (image courtesy United States Attorney’s Office)

The United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, Loretta E. Lynch, has filed a complaint for the forfeiture of an ancient Roman marble sarcophagus lid featuring a sculpture of a sleeping woman on a couch. The lid was found in a storage facility in Queens and is believed to have been stolen from Italy by convicted antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina.

The US Attorney’s Office announced the complaint in a press release today, one week after agents from the Department of Homeland Security, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) located the sarcophagus lid in Long Island City. The press release briefly summarizes the story of the stolen artifact, but Hyperallergic has obtained a copy of the civil complaint, which outlines it in further detail.

Becchina, an Italian citizen, owned and operated a gallery in art hub Basel, Switzerland, called Palladion-Antike Kunst. Leading up to his arrest and conviction, the Italian carabinieri (national military police) executed an authorized search of his holdings in 2002, which uncovered extensive documentation of his dealings. “Once Italian artifacts arrived in Switzerland, Becchina would sell them through auction houses or directly to museums, collectors or dealers,” the complaint alleges. “A review of the Becchina archive indicated that Becchina had operated a large-scale illicit antiquities trafficking business for decades.”

That raid turned up evidence of the sarcophagus lid, which Becchina bought in damaged condition (two pieces) in Italy and shipped to his gallery in Switzerland in 1981. He then sold it to a man named George Ortiz, and the following year, a photograph of the object turned up in an exhibition catalogue for a show at the Historical Museum of Bern (still in two pieces).

More than 30 years later, in May 2013, the sarcophagus lid appeared restored and whole in an exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory. It was shown by New York-based dealer Phoenix Ancient Art, which estimated its worth at $4 million. In October of the same year, Phoenix shipped the artifact to Artex Fine Art Services in Long Island City, which is where HSI agents found it last week in a storage crate.

The complaint filed by Lynch and Assistant United States Attorney Karin Orenstein calls for the forfeiture of the sarcophagus lid and its condemnation to the United States.

“Whether looted cultural property enters our ports today or decades ago, it is our responsibility to see that it is returned to its rightful owners, in this case, the Italian people,” says Lynch in the press release. James T. Hayes Jr., special agent in charge of HSI in New York, adds, “The forfeiture of this sarcophagus lid brings us one step closer to returning this stolen treasure to its rightful owner, the Italian people.”

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