This post comes from Jules Long, a student in the Tufts History and Museum Studies program.
On October 19, 2017, an ancient Roman ship’s floor mosaic—which had been turned into a coffee table—was repatriated to Italy in a ceremony held by Italian and American officials. The 2,000-year-old mosaic had been purchased by an antiquities dealer after its theft from a museum during World War II. Despite the reluctance of the purchaser to let go of the piece, the mosaic’s repatriation is appropriate and follows international cultural property laws and guidelines.
The mosaic, a colorful and distinctive work made from marble, serpentine, and porphyry, once adorned one of Roman Emperor Caligula’s “pleasure boats” used on the holy Lake Nemi in the suburbs of Rome, circa 35 C.E. After the emperor was assassinated in 41 C.E., two of the large boats were purposely sunk to the bottom of the lake, where they remained for nearly two thousand years, despite several attempts to raise the wrecks. Finally, in the 1930s, the wrecks were removed to dry land, conserved, and displayed in the Museo delle Navi (Museum of the Roman Ships) in Nemi. The ships and their associated objects, including the mosaic, are well documented through photographs from this time. However, the mosaic’s movements after that time are a bit of a mystery, as the mosaic disappeared around the time of World War II, when the museum was used as a bomb shelter for both civilians and German soldiers. In May of 1944, the museum suffered minor damage from an Allied air raid, which caused the German soldiers to retreat. It is believed the soldiers set the ships on fire as they let, destroying the priceless artifacts inside the museum but leaving the building’s concrete structure intact.
In September 2017, the mosaic was discovered in the New York City apartment of antiquities dealer Helen Fioratti. Fioratti had bought the piece from an “aristocratic” Italian family in the 1960s or 70s. She had taken the mosaic and turned it into a coffee table to adorn her home. She was aware that the piece was old and had been found in Lake Nemi, but she believed that the person she bought it from owned it and neglected to do any further provenance research. As an antiquities dealer, the name of Lake Nemi should have been a red flag for her about the origins of the piece. However, she apparently believed ignorance is bliss and had no concern whatsoever about the provenance of the piece because it was prominently displayed in a magazine piece in the Architectural Digest in March 1991—the article that likely led authorities to search Fioratti’s home in the first place. (Fioratti had already run afoul of the law several years earlier when she pled guilty to fraud and tax evasion, which also put increased scrutiny on her business.)
Extensive documentation on the Nemi ships, which included a photograph of the mosaic, was evidence that the mosaic had been stolen from the museum itself around World War II. However, even if the piece had been retrieved directly from the lake by private individuals, as Fioratti apparently believed, the object clearly falls under the category of “cultural property” as defined by UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property, since it was an element of an archaeological site that was dismembered and it is an antiquity older (by two millennia) than 100 years. Article 7 of the convention allows Italy to recover and return stolen cultural property. With those two aspects in mind, and with an eye on the material and time costs of a lengthy court battle, Fioratti did not put up a fight when the mosaic was seized. Nor will the Manhattan district attorney’s office press criminal charges against Fioratti, as it is not worth the cost when she willingly relinquished the object. However, Fioratti told the press, “I don’t know if anyone is going to see it as much as they did in my place. I had people who were interested in antiquities admiring it in my home all the time. Now it will be in a museum with a lot of other things.”
In reality, however, far more people will be able to see the striking mosaic where it belongs, in restored Museo delle Navi on the edge of the sacred Lake Nemi, than would ever be able to see it as a bling object in her private apartment. It’s just too bad that the mosaic has been changed from its original form—an incredible piece of art—into a modern piece of furniture. I have confidence, however, that the museum staff will be able to determine the piece’s fate appropriately—either conservation to try to return the mosaic to its original state or leaving it as it is to prevent additional damage.