By Bill Parry
After an ancient Roman sculpture was discovered in a Long Island City warehouse, federal investigators seized it Friday and are now planning on returning the piece to Italy.
In a civil complaint filed last week in Brooklyn federal court, the U.S. attorney’s office is seeking forfeiture of a 1,800-year-old lid of a Roman noblewoman’s sarcophagus.
The 1,700-pound marble statue of a reclining, semi-nude woman dates back to A.D. 200 and is worth $4 million, according to papers filed in court. Italian authorities say the piece matches photographs found in the files of convicted antiquities dealer Gianfranco Becchina, an Italian citizen operating an antiquities gallery in Switzerland.
The sarcophagus lid was located by agents from Homeland Security Investigations in a Long Island City warehouse, on 48th Avenue, belonging to Artex Fine Art Services, of Washington, D.C. A company spokesman declined an interview request citing security and client-privacy issues.
Becchina was convicted in 2011 by an Italian court of illicitly dealing in antiquities.
According to court records, Becchina purchased the marble sarcophagus lid and shipped it to his gallery in Basel in 1981. About 30 years later the sculpture reappeared at a public exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan last May. Federal investigators located it in Long Island City Feb. 20.
The complaint alleges that the antiquity is the property of Italy and is therefore forfeitable as stolen property that was unlawfully introduced into the United States.
“Whether looted cultural property enters our ports today or decades ago, it is our responsibility to see that it is returned to its rightful owners, in this case, the Italian people,” U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch said. “We will continue to use all legal tools available to us to seize, forfeit and repatriate stolen cultural property.”
Lynch thanked the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and the Italian Carabinieri Protection of Cultural Heritage Command for their assistance in identifying the sarcophagus lid.
Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at email@example.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.