The US has filed a complaint in a federal district court in California to determine who owns 230 antiquities produced in ancient Italian pottery workshops, which Italy claims to own under national law because they are objects of archaeological interest.
After a request for assistance from Italy, the objects were seized by US Customs officials in 1992 from the Los Angeles residence of David Holland Swingler and from a shop in Atlanta, Georgia, where he had consigned four of them.
It is “beyond reasonable doubt” that the objects came “from recent, illegal excavations in Italy,” states the Italian government, in a report by Dr Maria Antonietta Rizzo, archaeologist director of the Superintendency for the Antiquities of Southern Etruria, which was filed as part of the lawsuit. Most of the pots are “still in fragments, awaiting restoration” or still have “evident traces of soil sticking to their surfaces,” the report says, making older provenance “impossible.”
According to Dr Rizzo’s report, the pots, which date from the fourth to the second century BC, came mainly from southern Italy, especially Puglia (ancient Apulia). These include black varnish pots, coarse ware, a lamp, and statuettes with “perfectly preserved polychrome decoration.”
A different group, including bi-conical cinerary vases with lids and objects from tomb contexts, is “undoubtedly” of the Villanovan culture that flourished in Etruscan sites in central Italy in the ninth to eighth century BC, the report says.
Dr Rizzo said that “unfortunately, all [of] the most important figured vases usually found in such contexts—often of monumental size—have disappeared. The only surviving evidence about them” is contained in a “picture album belonging to Mr Swingler, where such vases are clearly portrayed.”
Dr Rizzo said that the objects had survived despite “the dismemberment of their context as seen through Mr Swingler’s photographs”, and were “nonetheless a remarkable document of various ancient cultures” living in Italy. She referred to “the loss of other pieces of greater quality appearing in Mr Swingler’s pictures [which have] now disappeared.”
In a separate lawsuit in New York federal court, Italy is seeking the return of a fifth-century BC gold phiale from collector Michael Steinhardt.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Italy sues for return of antique pottery'