Italy Receives 266 Antiquities Seized in US, Including Items Connected to Art Dealer Robin Symes

Italy recently received 266 antiquities that had been looted and sold to private collectors and museums in the United States. Officials said these objects were worth “several tens of millions of euros.”

According to the Associated Press, the returned items include 145 artifacts recently seized from a storage facility in New York belonging to British art dealer Robin Symes. There are also 65 objects that a collector offered to the Menil Collection in Houston. The museum ultimately declined to take these works.

The art unit of Italy’s Carabinieri military police force said in a press release the collector “spontaneously returned” the items to the country’s culture ministry after its investigators determined they came “from clandestine excavations in archaeological areas” and were illegally exported.

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The Carabinieri’s press release also said the items were already part of the Menil Collection, but the museum told the Associated Press that was not true. After a collector contacted the museum last year about gifting the artifacts, a museum curator directed the collector to the Italian culture minister, Gennaro Sangiuliano, “who alerted the museum that Italy was claiming the objects.”

“The Menil Collection declined these works from the collector and they have never been part of the museum’s collection,” a Menil Collection spokesperson said in a statement to the Associated Press.

Forty-two of the items returned by the US to Italy earlier this month, many of which were also connected to Symes or sold to Metropolitan Museum of Art trustee Shelby White, are worth $3.5 million alone, according to Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg.

The Manhattan DA’s office also said the 42 pieces it returned to Italy were recovered as part of several ongoing criminal investigations, and had previously been trafficked by prominent smugglers, including Giacomo Medici, Giovanni Franco Becchina, and Edoardo Almagià.

The items returned include a large Apulian calyx krater vase from 335 BCE, two Etruscan tile paintings from 440 BCE, five gold coins, and a gold fibula, a type of brooch or clasp from the late 3rd or early 4th century CE.

The calyx krater is over two feet tall, features painted scenes from the myth of Dirce, and had been photographed and included in the famous Polaroid archive of Medici. The Manhattan DA’s office said Symes laundered the piece through Sotheby’s in London and that it was seized from a private New York collection in July 2023.

The Etruscan painted tiles previously decorated a tomb in the Cerveteri necropolis complex and were looted in the 1980s before Symes took custody of them. In 1992, Symes sold the tiles to White and her husband Leon Levy for $1.6 million. The couple returned the tiles to Symes after multiple scholars raised questions about their origins, but they remained in the art dealer’s storage unit in New York until their seizure earlier this year in March.

The gold items were looted and smuggled out of Italy, and were eventually purchased by White and Levy at Ariadne Galleries in New York.

The return of these 266 items marks the fifth repatriation in less than three months connected to Symes. Last month, the Manhattan DA’s office repatriated two items to Libya estimated to be worth $1.26 million.

In May, Italy displayed 750 artifacts the country that had also been recovered from Symes’s company, which is in the process of being liquidated.

Shortly before that, Greece recovered 351 antiquities from the art dealer’s liquidated company after a 17-year legal battle, and the Manhattan DA’s office repatriated a limestone elephant to Iraq.

Symes was convicted of contempt of court for lying about antiquities he held in storage locations around the world in 2005. He sentenced to two years in prison, but only served seven months.

White’s collection has been the subject of multiple repatriations after a criminal investigation resulted in the seizure of 89 items from 10 different countries, valued at nearly $69 million. These repatriations include two stone-carved tomb beds from China valued at $3.5 million in June, an alabaster female figure dating to 2nd century BCE was repatriated to Yemen in April, nine antiquities repatriated to Turkey in March, and the seizures of Roman and Greek antiquities that took place last December.

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