United States Government Helps Retrieve Italian Cultural Heritage

By United States Ambassador to the European Union Anthony L. Gardner

On December 2, I was in Rome and met with the Carabinieri, the national gendarmerie of Italy. I became interested in the work of a specialized art squad of the Carabinieri while reading The Medici Conspiracy. The book exposed a network of thieves and art dealers who smuggled the cultural antiquities of Europe and it highlighted the great work of the police who track them down.

My visit was organized by the Rome Attaché office of ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), the investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which also investigates cultural antiquity theft and has returned over 7,000 looted cultural artifacts that had been imported illegally into the United States to 24 countries of origin. But more about that later.

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During the visit in Rome, we met with the Colonel in charge who told us about the unit’s structure and objectives, as well as deep cooperation with U.S. law enforcement. We went downstairs to their storage rooms and saw remarkable, recovered stolen artifacts, such as Etruscan vases.

As we concluded our visit, I was struck by how much a society is shaped by our cultural artifacts and how their theft denies us not only our history, but also our identity. For Americans, could we imagine the theft of the American flag that inspired our National Anthem or Gilbert Stuart’s famed portrait of George Washington? Repatriating looted art and lost cultural artifacts restores a country’s heritage and national pride.

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U.S. law enforcement is helping to preserve culture and history in the European Union. Just this week, ICE HSI announced the return to Italy of an illuminated manuscript known as Codex D that was created sometime between 1335 and 1345 by the Master of Dominican Effigies, an important illuminator. Codex D, essentially a type of hymnal, is parchment with leather binding and contained seven illuminated pages. The illuminated page with the initial L depicts Saint Lucy (Santa Lucia). A portion of the page was removed and is known as a leaf. The leaf is ink, tempera and gold on parchment, measuring 44.3 cm high and 35.2 cm wide. The leaf was purchased, in good faith, by a Museum in 1952, at which time it was attributed to a different artist. It has not been on display for more than 10 years. The Museum was contacted by HSI after a second leaf appeared on the Swiss market. That leaf was recently turned over to the Italian government. Working collaboratively with HSI to research the history of the leaf and after evaluating the information provided by the Italian government, the Museum agreed the leaf should be transferred to Italy to be reunited with the original Codex.

Earlier this year, a rare copy of a letter written in 1492 by Christopher Columbus to Queen Isabella of Castile was returned to Italy after being stolen from the Riccardiana Library in Florence, and replaced with a forgery. In the letter, Columbus detailed his voyage to the Americas from Spain and described the New World’s people and scenery,

In 2012, ICE HSI received an anonymous tip from a researcher who had viewed the “letter” in the library, and upon closer inspection, suspected it to be a fake. HSI, together with Italian law enforcement officials and experts examined the copy and concluded it was indeed an imitation. A few months later, HSI agents got another tip that the original was located in the U.S. Library of Congress. An expert determined that this copy of the letter was genuine.

The eight-page letter, one of 80 surviving copies published between 1493 and 1497, had been sitting in the Library of Congress in Washington since 2004 as a gift from an anonymous donor. However, As the Los Angeles Times details, officials recently discovered the letter’s true owners.

The Columbus letter’s return to Italy, was just one of many cultural repatriations by HSI to countries within the European Union.

For instance, in August 2014, HSI returned ancient coins to Greece after the arrest of an individual at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York. In April 2014, HSI returned an 18th Century painting to Poland that had been stolen from a church sometime between 1988 and 1996, and was being offered for sale on eBay.

In 2013, HSI returned to Spain a 16th century tapestry stolen in 1979 from a church and subsequently sold by a business in Brussels to a Houston, Texas businessman.

Many of HSI’s cultural heritage cases relate to Nazi looting of art and antiquities.  As just one example, in 2010, HSI returned to a German family an 18th Century porcelain “Sweetmeat Stand,” valued at over $1 million, that had been on loan to a Museum in Dresden before World War II, but was looted during the war.

In some cases, the seized materials have more historical significance than monetary value.  This includes the diary, kept by Adolf Hitler’s Reich Minister for the Occupied Eastern Territories. The diarist, Alfred Rosenberg, played a significant role in the mass murder of the Jewish people in the Occupied Eastern Territories, as well as the deportation of civilians to forced labor camps to support the German war effort.  The diary was seized by HSI after an investigation and donated to the U.S. Holocaust Museum in Washington.

During our visit with the Carabinieri unit, we learned that, while great progress has been made in inducing auction houses and museums to scrutinize provenance, much more needs to be done.

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