Looted art returns to Italy. First there was joy. But not all works are as ancient as they seem. Apparently, clever art forgers have fooled some of those involved.
For years there have been trials in Italy and elsewhere against criminal art dealers in Italy and abroad, including Switzerland. The fraudsters had bought from Italian “tombaroli”, illegal art thieves, and from art forgers (“falsari”) in order to sell these objects for a lot of money.
This is how masterful forgeries ended up in private and public collections. Many were to be found in US museums in particular, such as the Getty Museum in California or the Metropolitan Museum in New York City.
Return with hook
Since the beginning of this year, several hundred ancient works of art have been sent back to Italy, such as a well-preserved mural from Pompeii, a head of the goddess Athena and various bronze busts. However, the joy of this return did not last long.
Experts immediately sounded the alarm. Because among the returned works of art from Etruscan, Greek and Roman antiquity, they fear, there could be quite a few forgeries.
Detective work for archaeologists
With the help of experts in ancient art and forensic archeology, supposedly ancient cultural assets are now being examined for their authenticity. One of them is Pier Matteo Barone, who teaches at the American University in Rome.
Such investigations have become necessary, explains the expert, “because the forgeries that are flooding the art market now appear so masterful that even experienced archaeologists do not recognize them as such at first glance.”
This complex work combines archaeological and forensic methods. The aim of this work is to “separate ancient wheat from modern chaff,” explains Barone.
At the National Restoration Institute, for example, the cracks in antique vases are examined in detail. The archaeologist Luisa Mancini is involved. Her rule of thumb: “If an object made of terracotta was broken in earlier centuries, the edges can no longer be smooth”.
In such cases, according to the specialist, “there is a high probability of a clever forgery.” The exact control of breakages with the most modern technical devices is therefore enormously important for identifying counterfeits.
Each regional Italian Antiquities Authority now has its own forgery experts. Ultimately, their research results decide whether Greek sculptures, Roman busts and bronzes, wall paintings and Hellenistic vases returned to Italy can actually be exhibited in museums. Otherwise they should end up in magazines for proven counterfeits. The Ministry of Culture now wants to set this up.
However, many archaeologists speak out against such depots for forgeries. They resolutely demand the destruction of the false art treasures – this is intended to deter counterfeiters.
The cultural highlights of the week in the newsletter
Discover inspiration, stories and treasures from the world of culture: every Sunday, straight to your mailbox. Subscribe to the newsletter now.