Those who purchase illicit art works come in all walks of life. Some buyers are medical professionals, some are lawyers, and some are wealthy entrepreneurs. These are just a few of the profiles of the 27 individuals from Bari and Foggia under investigation following an operation carried out by the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Unit in Bari.
Focusing on illegitimate online sales of cultural goods, the twenty-seven individuals identified are being investigated for receiving stolen property, the illicit possession of cultural goods, the theft of archaeological material, or the illegal possession of ancient weapons.
Some of the objects recovered included:
140 archaeological finds datable from 300-400 B.C.E.
200 fragments largely attributable to the area of Magna Grecia
30 ancient weapons including one supplied to the Bourbon army and another to the papal troops
and a 16th century bronze cannon cast in Ljubljana, Slovenia
Yet, searching for those co-involved, did not just include the monitoring of commercial websites dedicated to the sale of ancient and historic objects. During a six month long investigation, led by Major Giovanni Di Bella, Carabinieri TPC officers used an interesting and creative approach.
While monitoring websites used for the buying and selling of art, officers from the TPC also turned their eyes to websites advertising tony residential property for sale in Italy. By studying real estate photos of the interiors of these properties, the carabinieri were able to identify houses that contain works of art, photographed in their pride of place locations, inside some of southern Italy's luxurious homes.
Giving it a try myself, within a few clicks I too, easily found photos depicting ancient art, displayed and photographed in plain view within residential settings while randomly checking advertisements for villas within the Rome market. Keeping in mind that a photo alone does not define an object's legitimacy or illegitimacy, these types of reviews can provide an interesting starting point for investigators.
|Image screengrab saved from a Rome property weblisting|
As a simple hypothetical illustration of the methodology, I identified a photo of the villa interior inside a 20-room estate for sale within the Parco Regionale dell'Appia Antica, along the main Roman road that started in 312 B.C.E. This property dates to the 1800s, so the ancient objects photographed would most likely have been uncovered during the establishment of the structure and should therefore have a proper pedigree. But how to know for sure?
A further search about the history of the property reveals that the house was built on the remains of an ancient basalt quarry which provided material for the Regina Viarum and was once owned by Carlo Ponti, an Italian film producer and husband of the actress Sophia Loren. Sitting just 300 meters from the tomb of Cecilia Metella and a 10 minute drive away from the Colosseum, it isn't possible to understand which, if any, of the objects shown on the property listings are part of the original holdings of the property and which might have been purchased on the ancient art market by the filmmaking couple, or it's subsequent owner, Giorgio Greco. If the 100 Roman artifacts and sculptures documented in this sale form the collection of the original property owner, they would/should have been duly reported to the Superintendency.
That said, tweezing out what is licit vs possibly licit is where the expertise of the Carabinieri is required and their novel approach to identifying ancient art perhaps purchased unawares by individuals who may or may not have failed to do their due diligence, is an interesting one. One thing is for sure, monitoring photographs like these on real estate sites can give law enforcement a greater understanding of who has legitimate works of ancient art, and on occasion, as the Bari investigation demonstrates, may also provide leads in who is dealing in or purchasing illicit material. This in turn can help lead law enforcement to dealers and middlemen suppliers transacting in illicit art.
Food for thought. A beautiful photo can mean different things to different people.