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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
Eastern District of New York

Thursday, November 14, 2013

U.S. Attorney Files Civil Complaint And Stipulation Of Settlement To Forfeit Ancient Italian Tomb Painting

Fragment Matches Opposing Tomb Wall On Display In Italian Museum

A civil complaint was docketed today in federal court in the Eastern District of New York to forfeit a triangular Italian fresco fragment (the “Fresco”) that was falsely described as Macedonian when it was shipped from Switzerland to the United States in April 2011.  The complaint alleges that the Fresco is the property of Italy and is protected under that country’s laws.  Upon its arrival in the United States, the Fresco was seized by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (“CBP”) with the assistance of Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”).  The government also filed a stipulation of settlement with the shipper, in which the shipper abandoned its interest in the Fresco and consented to its forfeiture.

The complaint and settlement were announced by Loretta E. Lynch, United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, and James T. Hayes, Jr., Special Agent in Charge, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, HSI, New York.

“Returning looted cultural property to its country of origin remains a priority of this office,” stated United States Attorney Lynch.  “This artifact belongs to the people of Italy.  It is a part of their history and heritage.  By filing this action, we are using the legal tools available to us to return it to its rightful owners.”  Ms. Lynch thanked the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and the Italian Carabinieri Protection of Cultural Heritage Command for their assistance.

“The unlawful theft, transportation, smuggling and sale of precious cultural property – like the ancient tomb painting being forfeited today – has become increasingly difficult as a result of increased collaboration amongst law enforcement around the globe," said James T. Hayes Jr., special agent in charge of HSI New York. “HSI and our partners at CBP work more closely than ever to ensure the legitimacy of cultural property and antiquities that are brought into the United States”.

Italian authorities have identified the Fresco as the pediment of a painted tomb that originated near the ancient city of Paestum, Italy.  The Paestum archeological site, which has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, has suffered from thefts and illegal excavations.  The painted tombs of Paestum were first excavated in 1969 and typically had four walls with pitched roofs, like small houses.  Thus, as the pediment of one end of a painted tomb, the Fresco would have stood opposite a wall with a similarly painted pediment.  Indeed, an exact match – a single wall whose pediment is identical to the Fresco in both dimensions and decoration – stands in the National Archeological Museum of Paestum in Italy.

When the Fresco was shipped to the United States, the shipper declared that the Fresco’s country of origin was Macedonia.  CBP detained the Fresco on arrival and requested additional information on the Fresco’s history of ownership, or provenance.  The shipper then supplied an affidavit repeating that the Fresco was Macedonian.  The affidavit further stated that the Fresco had been purchased from a Swiss art gallery in 1959 – ten years prior to the excavation of the painted tombs at Paestum.  An expert in ancient paintings advised HSI that the piece originated in Italy, not Macedonia, leading HSI to inquire with Italian authorities.

Upon being presented with evidence that the Fresco originated in Italy, not Macedonia, the shipper entered into a stipulation with the United States agreeing to forfeit the piece so that it can be repatriated to Italy.

The government’s case is being handled by Assistant United States Attorney Karin Orenstein.

E.D.N.Y. Docket No. 13-CV-6286 (CBA)

Fresco Stipulation of Settlement
Fresco Complaint

Updated July 15, 2015