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Seized artifacts worth $20 million are shown off on return to Italy

Barbie Latza Nadeau, CNN

Italy celebrated the return of 60 ancient artifacts worth more than $20 million from the United States with a display in Rome’s Spadolini Hall on Monday.

Most of the items — which include a fresco of Hercules as a child fighting a serpent, which was stolen from Herculaneum, and a bronze bust of a man dating back to the first century CE — come from the seizure of US billionaire Michael Steinhardt’s private collection, according to Matthew Bogdanos, head of the Manhattan district attorney’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit.

In 2021, the Manhattan DA’s office banned Steinhardt from acquiring antiquities for life, after it seized $70 million in art from his private collection.

Bogdanos, who attended the unveiling of 57 of the items on Monday, told CNN that the unit is the only one of its kind in the US and one of the few in the world that marries law enforcement, art and archeology to hunt down treasures looted from all over the world.

In its 10-year existence, the unit has recovered 4,500 pieces, worth $300 million, which have been returned to 25 countries, he said. Of those pieces, 500 items, worth $55 million, have come back to Italy, including some from the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The good news is that there has been a sea change in the last decade in the willingness of museums and collectors and galleries, once we present them with the evidence, to comply and voluntarily return objects,” he told CNN. “The bad news is there are still so many museums, galleries, foundations and private collectors who simply believe for whatever misguided reason that these antiquities are safer in their hands.”

Once returned, many of these pieces will go back to the regions they came from. Others will be stored in warehouses with thousands of other pieces of art that have been sequestered or returned to Italy.

The commander of the Italian Carabinieri’s Art Theft Unit, Vincenzo Molinese, said the return of the art and artifacts has a monetary value, but it is also important because of their place in Italy’s rich cultural heritage.

Darius Arya, an independent archeologist and historian, agreed, telling CNN that where they end up is not important, so long as they come back to Italy.

“The artifacts have to, deserve to, must go back to their home country,” Arya told CNN. “That’s fundamental. Even if they’re not the most important pieces compared to, say, rich collections that exist in Italy, the point is that they were robbed from this country and deserve to go back to their home country.”

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