The Italian Almanac

art police

Art Police

An exhibition in Rome this summer pays tribute to the work of Italy's 'art police' with a marvellous display of recovered artworks and historic artefacts. The event at the capital's Vittoriano offers visitors a fascinating mishmash of masterpieces from different eras ranging from the 7th century BC to the 2nd century AD. The vases, plates, amphorae, jewellery, paintings and statues have all been recovered in operations by Italy's art police, who have been involved in a major drive over the last decade to stem the flood of antiquities leaving the country.

An array of busts depict key figures from Ancient Rome, including a stern portrait of Agrippina the Elder, mother of Caligula, and a much sweeter Faustina the Elder, wife of the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Among the pottery on display is a 4th-century BC Greek bowl, a 'phiale', decorated with a host of detailed mythological figures, while a perfectly preserved 3rd-century chalice used for mixing wine and water depicts a string of dancing red figures. The police department that specializes in recovering priceless artefacts believes the chalice came from Campania but far too often they have no idea about the object's origin. As a result, all additional information about the item and its background is irretrievably lost to archaeologists. "Such artefacts are mute, unable to share their history or their story," said the exhibition's curator, Finance Police Major Massimo Rossi.

The pieces on display pay tribute to the dedication and drive of the art police involved in recovering Italy's ancient treasures. But although 1970s heyday of trafficking, in which tomb robbers and black-market dealers operated with impunity is over, police continue to face an uphill struggle, said Rossi. "It is a continually growing problem, one which has assumed an international element of alarming dimensions in recent years," he explained. The black market trade in Italian artefacts "is fed by economically powerful movements that dictate market laws and establish the rules of offer and demand by opening new routes". According to Rossi, Asian markets, in particular those of China and Japan, are proving especially lucrative for dealers trading in stolen Italian antiquities.

But the efforts of the art police are nevertheless paying dividends, with a steady rise in the numbers of suspects charged and items recovered. In the 24 months between January 2008 and December 2009, art police recovered 11,258 antiquities, seized 136,873 fake artefacts and charged 294 individuals. This was approximately a 50% increase in all categories on the previous two-year period of 2006-2007, said Rossi.

Dal Sepolcro al Museo, Storie di Saccheggi e Recuperi (From the Grave to the Museum, Stories of Looting and Recovery) can be visited for free at the Vittoriano until September 12.