Antiquities and Archaeology Italy

Outstanding Roman sarcophagus recovered after more than 20 years

Executor of late, unnamed US antiquities dealer contacted Italian authorities

The alabaster sarcophagus was presented at a press conference in Rome before it was returned to its home town of Aquino

An ancient Roman alabaster sarcophagus, which was stolen more than 20 years ago from a church south of Rome, was returned to Italy on 18 July. It came from the London-based collection of an unnamed antiquities, flown back to Rome on a cargo flight in a container reportedly displaying the official seal of the Italian Embassy in London.

A special team from the cultural heritage protection division of Italy's police force, the Guardia di Finanza, gruppo Tutela Patrimonio Archeologico, lead by Massimo Rossi, conducted the repatriation operation.

The sarcophagus, which dates from between the second and third centuries BC, was presented at a press conference in Rome and then returned to its hometown of Aquino, around 100km south of the capital, where it is on show in the deconsecrated church of Santa Marta.

Although official sources have not confirmed this, the Italian newspaper Il Giornale has reported that the private collection in question belonged to the late US antiquities dealer Robert Hecht, who died on 9 February. Hecht had been accused in Roman court of conspiring to receive antiquities illegally excavated and exported from Italy, but his trial ended in January without a verdict when the statute of limitations ran out. Il Giornale also reported that the executor of Hecht's will first contacted Italian authorities.

The work, which features in relief scenes of chariot races at Rome's Circus Maximus, was stolen in 1991 from the Madonna della Libera church in Aquino. It was one of Italy’s great, unsolved antiquities thefts. No one has ever been charged with its theft.

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