When Eurojust announced that a Belgian collection of nearly 800 Apulian artefacts valued at €11 million had been seized and returned to Italy, it appeared to be a major victory for the Carabinieri and EU law enforcement.
However, dig deeper and all is not what it appears.
At the heart of this case is a stele, which has been part of this collection for decades. It had some missing features that matched fragments on display in a museum in Puglia. The implication? The stele must have been exported illegally: “The missing part enabled authorities to make a link to the artefact displayed during the expositions and led to the Belgian collector,” Eurojust explains.
What came next sounds dramatic: “At his premises, the investigators found the main part of the tombstone and were able to match this to the parts displayed in the Italian museum. During the investigations, a further vast collection of illegally excavated artefacts and pieces of pottery was found, dating to between 600 and 300 B.C..”
Establishing judicial co-operation between the Belgian and Italian authorities led to the entire collection later being shipped to Italy.
However, despite the claims, questions remain over what really happened.
A separate source has told IADAA that far from being shown to be illicit, the collection was shipped to Italy “for further research”, with claims that it was illicit and seized coming only after the shipment had taken place and without any evidence being provided to support the claim. The shipment included artefacts from Turkey, with no explanation as to why they were being seized by Italy.
As CNN reported, “the stele was listed in the catalogue for an exhibition held at the Rath Museum in Geneva, Switzerland, from November 1993 to February 1994, and an exhibition at the Mona-Bismarck Foundation Museum in Paris, France, from March 1 to April 30 1994.”
Applicable laws appear to have been ignored by the authorities
Article 7 of the European Union’s Regulation 93/7, which applied at the time, stipulated that Italy would have one year to file a claim for its return. It did not do so. Even under the updated Regulation 2014/60, which extended the claim period by three years, the current Italian claim is at least 25 years too late.
It is also odd that the authorities state that an investigation helped them identify the collector when the collection had been published and exhibited for decades. The collector had even published his name in association with it in the process.
Regardless of the stele itself, questions remain over other items in the collection. Most notably, the numerous black figure Attic vases have origins that are particularly difficult to establish, making it highly unlikely that any evidence exists to show that they were obtained or exported illegally.
Meanwhile the Art Newspaper’s coverage sheds some more light on what appears to have happened. According to its report, “782 items were identified in the collection that could be considered Italian national heritage, and as such had been exported illegally”.
“Could be considered”? And “as such”?
What this appears to reveal is that the collection – the owner is not a dealer despite the headline – has been deemed illicit because of its quality and importance, not on the grounds of illicit export.
Did the Art Newspaper correspondent ask the authorities what actual evidence they had that the collection was illicit? If so, what was it?
Italy’s first comprehensive cultural heritage law restricting exports (Law No 364/1909) came into force in 1909. Unless the Carabinieri, Eurojust and other law enforcement are in possession of evidence that the items in this collection were exported against the law after that date, the seizure would appear to have been made on no more than supposition. If so, a legitimate collector has been deprived of his long-held collection, valued by the authorities at €11 million, as a result of what would seem to be no more than nationalism and cultural piracy.
At the very least it would seem reasonable for the authorities to publish their evidence in such a significant case.
Due process must be protected: if the collection has been looted, then it has been rightly returned; if not, then significant reparations need to be made and a public investigation launched into how such a miscarriage of justice can not only take place but be promoted by the authorities in such a misleading way.