Italian art detectives have found stolen ancient treasures at a leading Australian university, including an artifact likely smuggled out of the country under piles of pasta, the institution said.
Australian National University (ANU) said Friday it was working with the “specialist art squad” of Italy’s Carabinieri military police to return the priceless pieces.
The looted works discovered within the university’s classics museum included a 2,500-year-old amphora depicting Greek champion Heracles fighting the mythical Nemean lion. It has been “a key object in the ANU Classics Museum for almost 40 years,” the institution said.
Italian police discovered an old Polaroid photo of the Heracles vase while investigating an unnamed art thief, which led them to believe it had been illegally plundered before it was sent to Australia.
The Canberra university said it had bought the vase in “good faith” at a Sotheby’s auction in 1984, and was “proud” to work with Italian investigators to see it returned to its rightful home.
Museum curator Georgia Pike-Rowney described the vase, which dates back to 530 BC, as a “stunning example” of ancient Mediterranean craftmanship.
“A vessel with two handles, the amphora would have been used for storing olive oil or wine,” she said.
Working in tandem with the museum, the Carabinieri also identified a stolen red fish plate from the Italian region of Apulia which they were able to trace to David Holland Swingler, an American art trafficker and food importer known for a culinary modus operandi.
“During trips to Italy, Swingler sourced material directly from tombaroli — literally ‘tomb robbers’ who undertake illegal excavations,” Pike-Rowney said.
She added that Swingler “then smuggled the items to the U.S. hidden among bundles of pasta and other Italian foods”.
Spurred to undertake its own audit, the Australian National University subsequently found a Roman marble head that belonged to a separate collection owned by the Vatican.
Pike-Rowney said the Carabinieri have received permission to act on the Vatican’s behalf to repatriate the artifact.
“Conversations about the repatriation of ancient artifacts have become prominent in recent years, as institutions across the world grapple with the legacies of historical collection practices,” said Pike-Rowney.
“As Australia’s national university, ANU must be at the forefront of best practice in the management of restitution and repatriation cases.”
Italy’s government has agreed to loan the vase and the fish plate to the university until they are returned at a “future date.”
The news of the stolen treasures came just days after a famous art detective returned a Vincent van Gogh painting to a Dutch museum more than three years after it was stolen.
Also last week, authorities in the U.S. seized three artworks believed stolen during the Holocaust from a Jewish art collector.