A looted mosaic that once decorated a Roman Emperor Caligula’s ship and ended up as a coffee table in New York City finally returned home Thursday, when details emerged about the fluke in the investigation that got it there.
Officials unveiled the mosaic at the Roman Ship Museum, which was built in the 1930s specifically to house the treasures of two huge ceremonial ships commissioned by Caligula around AD 40.The ships eventually sank and were excavated from the depths of the lake. Nemi, in the Alban Hills south of Rome, beginning in the late 1890s.
The mosaic, a 1.5 square meter geometric print in green, reddish purple and white stone, was part of an inlaid floor on one of the ships, which were essentially designed and decorated as floating palaces in a testament to the greatness of Caligula.
It is unclear when the mosaic passed into private hands or under what circumstances. But eventually, it was bought by a New York antiques dealer and her husband, an Italian journalist, who sent it back to New York and made a coffee table for their Park Avenue apartment.
And there it remained, relatively quiet, until October. 23, 2013. That night, at the Bulgari jewelry store on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, marble and stone expert Dario Del Bufalo was lecturing and signing books for his new book. Porphyry, in the rare reddish-purple stone preferred by Roman emperors, attended by New York’s cultural elite.
While signing books, Del Bufalo said she heard two women who were flipping through her book exclaim, “This is Helen’s mosaic! This is Helen’s mosaic! ‘”After seeing a photograph of the work.
“I didn’t get it,” Del Bufalo said Thursday as the mosaic was on display at the Nemi museum. “There were a lot of art experts and I asked ‘Who is Helen?’ And they told me it’s a woman who has a house on Park Avenue and this same mosaic. “
Helen was Helen Fioratti, the antiques saleswoman, and would soon be caught up in the investigation by the Manhattan district attorney’s office, the Italian culture ministry, and the Carabinieri art team, all of whom were searching for antiques that had been looted from Italy and ended up in private collections and in the best museums in the United States.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office announced in October 2017 that it had confiscated the mosaic and returned it to the Italian consular authorities, who repatriated it to Italy. It has been in a temporary exhibition ever since in Italy, but was returned to the Nemi museum on Thursday, with the other artifacts from Caligula’s ships.
Fioratti said The Associated Press At the time of the seizure, he had bought the mosaic in good faith more than 40 years earlier while living in Italy and had been told that it belonged to the aristocratic Barberini family. She was never prosecuted and decided not to challenge the seizure because she believed it would cost too much and take too long.
“It was an innocent purchase,” he said at the time, adding that the sale had been negotiated by an Italian art historian known for his work on recovering art stolen by the Nazis. “We were very happy with that. We loved it. We had it for years and years, and people always complimented us on it. “
Del Bufalo said the district attorney’s office eventually asked him to authenticate the mosaic. He said he immediately recognized the round pieces of porphyry used, as well as the restoration of a vertical crack.
“When they showed me the photos of the mosaic of this woman who lived in New York, I told them; ‘Yes, it’s exactly the same,’ ”he said.
Del Bufalo suggested that the mosaic was never displayed in the museum, which was converted into a bomb shelter during World War II and was later damaged by fire. Unlike other relics, he noted, the mosaic shows no evidence of fire damage, suggesting that it had been removed before or during the war, or that it had never been there and had been in private hands since it was excavated.
Nemi Mayor Alberto Bertucci said the city was proud to welcome the mosaic home.
“The mosaic testifies to how important and luxurious these imperial ships were,” he said at the unveiling on Thursday. “These ships were like buildings: they were not supposed to sail and confirm the greatness of this emperor who wanted to show the greatness of his dominance of the Roman Empire through these ships.”