July 1, 2020

Auction House Seizure: A Roman marble portrait head of the Emperor Septimius Severus, circa 200 CE seized at Christie's

Image Left:  Christie's Catalogue where the stolen sculpture was identified.
Image Right:  Showroom image of the stolen head of Emperor Septimius Severus

An ancient Roman marble head was seized on the basis of a search warrant requested by the Manhattan District Attorney's Office on June 24th at Christie’s auction house based on evidence provided by the Italian Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, attesting that the portrait bust had been stolen from Italy in on 18 November 1985 before eventually landing in New York.  Taken at gunpoint from the Antiquarium of the Campanian Amphitheatre in Santa Maria Capua Vetere, in the Province of Caserta, situated 25 km north of Naples in southern Italy.  The sculpture depicts Septimius Severus who served as Roman emperor from 193 to 211 CE. 

The antiquity was published in Christie's 28 October 2019 catalogue Faces of the Past - Ancient Sculpture from the Collection of Dr. Anton Pestalozzi which included two pages describing the biography of the Roman Emporer and the object's comparable likeness to other portraits of Severus in the Serapis-type style, including one at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek in Denmark.

For the object's provenance, Christie's stated:

◘ with Jean-Luc Chalmin, London

◘ with Galerie Arete, Zurich, acquired from the above, 1993

◘ Dr. Anton Pestalozzi (1915-2007), Zurich, acquired from the above, thence by descent to the current owner. 

According to Roman Historian Cato the Elder the site at Ancient Capua where the object originates was founded by the Etruscans around 800 BCE and is remembered most for being the site where slaves and gladiators led by the legendary Spartacus revolted 73 BCE. 

While details on this particular investigation have not yet been released to the public, one of the troubling aspects in this case - of which there are many - and the most disturbing perhaps, is the failure of anyone whose hands this object passed through to have properly investigated the provenance of this portrait head.  No one, from Jean-Luc Chalmin, to Hans Humbel at Galerie Arete to the Zurich-based lawyer-collector Dr. Anton Pestalozzi ever bothered to ascertain by reasonable inquiry that the person from whom they had obtained the artifact had the legal right to possess it.

Amphitheater Campano Santa Maria Capua Vetere
On the bright side, this third object seizure in a span of weeks should send an important message to the auction powerhouse, as well as to dealers who profit from the sales of illicit material, that the Antiquities Trafficking Unit at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office and the US and Italian authorities are committed to protecting cultural heritage around the world.

Update:  A second artefact, stolen during this same armed robbery, a head portrait depicting the beloved elder sister of Roman Emperor Trajan, Ulpia Marciana (August 48 – 112) was recovered, twenty-five years ago, ten years after the theft.

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