Major recoveries lead to return of stolen Italian, Greek antiquities

NEW YORK — An antiquity depicting the Greek god of wine was returned to Italian authorities on April 21 after New York police determined the piece had been stolen from a museum in Italy more than two decades ago. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly delivered the marble head of Dionysus — known in Roman mythology as Bacchus — to Consul General Antonio Bandini in a ceremony at the Italian Consulate on Park Avenue.

“On behalf of the New York Police Department, I bring you the head of Dionysus,” Kelly told the Italian official.

Authorities said Christie’s had planned to auction the item, which came from a defunct Japanese museum, in 2002. It reportedly was to have been offered with a pre-sale estimate of around $25,000. But the auction house, amid suspicions it had been stolen, turned it over to police.

The NYPD’s Major Case Squad traced the sculpture to a small museum in Italy that had been looted in 1983. It was sold to the Japanese museum sometime before 1990, but there was no record of the seller, police said. Meanwhile, in another case involving stolen antiquities, Athens police expect to file charges soon against the caretaker of a Greek island villa that housed an illicit collection of nearly 300 antiquities. Costas Grispos, a former mayor on the tiny island of Schoinoussa, was arrested and is to be charged in connection with four ancient vases found in the home. Authorities said the pieces had been fished out of the sea, probably from a shipwreck.

Grispos is the caretaker of a shipping magnate’s villa on the remote Aegean Sea islet where an April 12 raid found unregistered ancient artifacts. A raid on a house in Athens also turned up antiquities. Authorities said they recovered about 280 items in all.

The artifacts — some more than 3,000 years old —include a headless marble statue of Aphrodite, the ancient goddess of love, dating to Roman times; a marble sarcophagus decorated with sculpted human and animal masks; three marble busts and two granite sphinxes.

Police said an additional 36 artifacts subsequently were found at the sprawling villa. They included three sections of wall paintings from medieval churches, prehistoric stone tools and a late Roman column capital. The search also uncovered 17 albums with photos of artifacts, police said.

Police have been transferring the seized items to Athens museums. An official at the Byzantine Museum said eight crates had arrived with an undisclosed number of artifacts. “They will remain here until the case comes to court,” said the museum’s deputy director, Evgenia Halkia.

Greek authorities are investigating whether the artifacts are linked to the illicit trade in unregistered antiquities that is behind a dispute between Greece and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Culture Minister Giorgos Voulgarakis said there was no evidence to back media reports of a link to Getty, and the museum said it has no connection to the items that were seized. Greece is demanding the return of four ancient artifacts from the Getty, claiming they are among thousands believed to have been illegally exported as part of a booming trade in the country’s priceless archaeological heritage.

— Catherine Saunders-Watson,
Associated Press contributed