On 18th July, an ancient Roman alabaster sarcophagus dating from between the second and third centuries BC, which features in relief scenes of chariot races at Rome's Circus Maximus was returned to Italy. A special team from the cultural heritage protection division of Italy's police force, the Guardia di Finanza, gruppo Tutela Patrimonio Archeologico, lead by Massimo Rossi, conducted the repatriation operation.
The object had been stolen in 1991 from the Madonna della Libera church in Aquino 100km south of Rome. It was one of Italy’s great, unsolved antiquities thefts, and nobody has ever been charged with its theft. The sarcophagus was rediscovered in an unnamed "London-based collection of an antiquities".
Although official sources have not confirmed this, the Italian newspaper Il Giornale has reported that the private collection in question belonged to the late US antiquities dealer Robert Hecht, who died on 9 February. Hecht had been accused in Roman court of conspiring to receive antiquities illegally excavated and exported from Italy, but his trial ended in January without a verdict when the statute of limitations ran out. Il Giornale also reported that the executor of Hecht's will first contacted Italian authorities.Hecht, one of the most prominent antiquity dealers of his day must have been aware of the theft and the appearance of the missing object, and if it is indeed true that he had it in his London home, it says a lot about the guy. How many collectors have items that they know for sure were stolen? What does that say about the "ancient art" trade?
Tina Lepri and Ermanno Rivetti, 'Stolen Roman alabaster recovered after more than 20 years', The Art Newspaper, Published online: 26 July 2012
Photo: the Art Newspaper