Friday, 7 November 2008

Major Return to Italy from Switzerland

It has been announced that Switzerland will be returning some 4,400 antiquities to Italy (Frank Jordans, "Swiss to return stolen antiquities to Italy", AP November 6, 2008). The antiquities, which will fill three lorry-loads, were seized in 2001 from storage facilities of two Basel-based antiquities dealers. The return is the culmination of an extended legal battle to keep the "stock" in Switzerland.

Apparently half the items had been derived from tombs in Apulia, reminding us of the problem of looting in this area. (Several Apulian pots have been returned from North American collections to Italy; Italy has also been seeking the return of Apulian material from Leiden.)

Guido Lassau, a Swiss archaeologist, made the key point that will strike a chord with colleagues:
They're very well preserved because they spent the last 2,000 years in a virtual time capsule until they were plundered by grave robbers ... But the tragic thing is that a lot of the archaeological information was lost when they were removed.
The scale of looting in Apulia has been the subject of significant comment by Ricardo Elia.

Lassau also commented on the scale of the haul:
This is a vast haul on a dramatic scale that would have saturated the market if they had been sold.
The dealers have not been identified due to Swiss privacy laws, though it was noted that both were "under investigation in Italy and Switzerland". However the report added:
The woman could face prosecution in Switzerland for handling stolen goods, and her husband is the subject of criminal proceedings in Italy for allegedly exporting cultural antiquities illegally, handling stolen goods and belonging to a criminal organization.
There is one husband-and-wife team with links to Sicily and Basel - and who have been linked to some of the returns to Italy. We should wait for an official announcement, but if this pair are who I think they are then we should expect further claims made on private collectors and public museums (and not just in North America).

This is not the end of revelations. Apparently a further 1400 antiquities were seized in 2001 and it is not yet clear from which country they had been removed. Does this mean Greece and Turkey will also be expecting returns?

The newspaper report reminds us that Switzerland is no longer the centre for the trade in antiquities which has now shifted to Germany.

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