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MANHATTAN U.S. ATTORNEY ANNOUNCES RETURN TO ITALY OF TWO OBJECTS OF ITALIAN CULTURAL PROPERTY ILLEGALLY IMPORTED INTO UNITED STATES

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Thursday April 26, 2012

Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, and John Morton, Director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”), announced today the return to the Italian Government of the painting “Leda ed il Cigno” (Leda and the Swan) by Italian Renaissance painter Lelio Orsi, and a Roman Marble Janiform Herm, circa 1st Century A.D., that were ordered forfeited to the United States as property imported into the country in violation of customs laws.

Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “In securing the forfeiture of these important objects of Italian cultural property and returning them to the Italian government, we are giving back to the Italian people a small piece of their history – and that could not be more gratifying.  The work we do with our law enforcement partners in the United States and throughout the world to recover illegally imported property and return it to its rightful owners remains a high priority for this Office.”

ICE Director John Morton said: “Conducting these investigations and heralding their results sends a strong message.  ICE is serious about reining in art and antiquity thieves, smugglers, and traffickers.  Together with the Carabinieri and agencies like Interpol, the Department of Justice, and our sister agency U.S. Customs and Border Protection, we intend to turn the tide on art and antiquity thieves.”

Leda and the Swan

According to the forfeiture complaint filed in Manhattan federal court in December 2008:

“Leda ed il Cigno” (the “Painting”) depicts the seduction of Leda by Zeus, who, according to Greek mythology, came to earth disguised as a swan.  The Painting was sold to an individual who imported it into the United States via John F. Kennedy Airport in Jamaica, New York, on November 29, 2006, using false declarations concerning its country of origin.  United States law requires the filing of a Customs Entry Summary for any artwork being imported into the United States, and requires the inclusion of the artwork’s country of origin on that summary.  In December 2006, a Customs Entry Summary was filed indicating that the Painting’s country of origin was Great Britain. 

After the Painting was illegally imported into the United States, it was auctioned and sold at Sotheby’s New York on January 24, 2008, for more than $1 million.  After the sale, the purchaser rescinded the purchase after learning of the pending Italian criminal investigation.  The Painting was subsequently seized in June 2008 by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) in New York pursuant to a seizure warrant, and has been held in an appropriate facility since that time.  The Painting was forfeited to the United States on January 11, 2011, after the U.S. District Court dismissed a claim of ownership filed by a private corporation in Madeira.

The forfeiture of the Painting arose out of an Italian criminal investigation conducted by the Office of the Public Prosecutor at the Ordinary Court of Rome in conjunction with the Unit for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of the Italian National Police (the “Carabinieri”).  In March 2008, the Public Prosecutor’s Office for the Court of Rome filed a mutual legal assistance request with the United States seeking help with the investigation and seizure of the Painting.

Italian laws for the protection of Italy’s historical and cultural heritage prohibit the exportation of objects of artistic, historic, or cultural significance without first obtaining an export license from the Ministry of Italian Culture.  Italian patrimony laws also prohibit the excavation and removal of cultural property from the ground without the authorization of the Ministry of Cultural Assets.  Italian authorities verified that the Italian government had not issued the requisite license authorizing the legal exportation of the Painting from Italy.  Property that is stolen abroad and later brought into the United States is subject to forfeiture.

Roman Marble Janiform Herm

The Roman Marble Janiform Herm, circa 1st Century A.D. and approximately 6.2 inches high, depicts an old and young satyr (the “Herm”).  An investigation conducted by the Carabinieri revealed that Herm had been illegally excavated from the Southern Etruria region of Italy and smuggled out of the country without the permission of the Ministry of Cultural Assets.  According to an Italian criminal investigation, the Herm and other cultural artifacts had been stolen or illegally exported from Italy into Switzerland by Gianfranco Beccina and others.  In 2010, acting on a request for investigative assistance from the Carabinieri, ICE HSI special agents in New York executed a seizure warrant prepared by the U.S. Attorney’s Office and seized the Herm from Christie’s auction house in New York, based on evidence that the object was smuggled out of Italy and illegally imported into the United States via Switzerland.  In May 2011, the Marble Janiform Herm was administratively forfeited to ICE.

The Painting and the Herm were returned to the Italian Ambassador to the United States, Claudio Bisogniero, by U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano following a ceremony at the Embassy of Italy in Washington, D.C.

Mr. Bharara praised the investigative work of ICE HSI and the Unit for the Protection of the Cultural Heritage of the Italian National Police in bringing these matters to a successful conclusion.  He also thanked the Offices of the ICE and Department of Justice Attachés at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, the Office of the Public Prosecutor at the Ordinary Court of Rome, and the Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs for their assistance.

The forfeitures of the Painting and the Herm are being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorneys Jason Hernandez and Barbara A. Ward of the Office’s Asset Forfeiture Unit.

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