The British Museum gets a lot of flak for its reputation of housing stolen or looted artifacts from around the world. The fact that the British government refuses to repatriate the Parthenon Marbles looted from Athens certainly did not help. And now, in Rome, there’s a museum exclusively dedicated to stolen art. But this one is for art about to be returned to their places of origin. The Museo dell’Arte Salvata, or the Museum of Rescued Art, opened last month at the Baths of Diocletian, a property used partly by Italy’s National Roman Museum.
When it comes to “rescued” art, there are a lot of works that fall under that categorization. Art is rescued when it is confiscated from thieves and looters; or when it is salvaged from shipwrecks. Art can even be rescued when it undergoes extensive restoration. The museum’s first exhibit, running until October 15th, is dedicated to art repatriated to Italy after being stolen. After the exhibition is over, the exhibit contents will be returned to art and cultural institutions closest as possible to their places of origin.
The museum’s opening comes at a very opportune time. This past Wednesday, July 20th, the Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg turned over one hundred forty-two artifacts to the Italian consul-general in New York. The artifacts are estimated to be worth a total of around $14 million. Of this haul, sixty items were those seized from Royal-Athena Galleries in Midtown Manhattan, a now-closed antiquities dealership once operated by the late Jerome Eisenberg. Forty-eight pieces once belonged to the American billionaire and antiquities collector Michael Steinhardt. Last year, Steinhardt received a lifetime ban on dealing in antiquities and was forced to hand over about $70 million worth of artifacts.
Probably the most famous of Steinhardt’s items in this latest batch of artifacts is what is known as the Ercolano Fresco. It is part of an ancient Roman wall looted from Herculaneum, one of the Roman cities destroyed in the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius that also buried Pompeii. The fresco depicts the classical hero Hercules as a child, killing a snake wrapped around his arms. This is in reference to a story where Hercules, son of the god Jupiter and the mortal Alcmene, escaped death when he killed two snakes placed in his crib by Jupiter’s wife Juno. Steinhardt purchased the fresco in 1995 for around $650K, and the artifact is now estimated to be worth $1 million. This newest group of items will likely be displayed at the Museum of Rescued Art in Rome, but nothing has been officially arranged yet.