In 1983 thieves hacked off the head of an ancient statue of Dionysus that had rested in Mussolini's old villa in Rome and carted the piece away. It turned up in a Japanese museum, and later in a Christie's auction catalog. Yesterday, in New York, the Italian government got it back.
The head of a first-century statue of Dionysus, right, which was looted in 1983 from the grounds of the Villa Torlonia, once a residence of Mussolini.
A consular official swept away an Italian flag to reveal the head, about the size of a large grapefruit, to reporters. Raymond W. Kelly, New York City's police commissioner, and Antonio Bandini, the Italian consul-general, presided over the event at the Italian consulate on Park Avenue.
"On behalf of the New York Police Department, I'm pleased to bring you the head of Dionysus," Mr. Kelly said. Given the popularity of Italian wine among New Yorkers, "it's fitting now we bring Bacchus to where it belongs," he said, using the Roman name for the god of wine and revelry.
Mr. Bandini alluded to Italy's recent stepped-up efforts to recover looted artifacts, most notably a watershed agreement it reached with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In February, reversing a position it had held for more than 30 years, the Met relinquished ownership of a 2,500-year-old Greek vase, considered one of the world's finest, to Italy, along with several other antiquities. The Italians had long contended that the vase was stolen from an Etruscan tomb near Rome and smuggled from the country.
"We are very encouraged to see how there is a new sensitiveness and attention to illegal exportation of artifacts," Mr. Bandini said. "For a long time this has been a contentious issue."
The case was straightforward. On Nov. 30, 1983, according to the Italian government, the sculpture's head and other items were stolen from the old stables of the Villa Torlonia, a 19th-century villa that was a former residence of Mussolini and sits atop Jewish catacombs. The villa and its grounds were acquired by the city of Rome after World War II but suffered from considerable neglect, partly because of a willful attempt to ignore Italy's Fascist legacy. After a lengthy renovation the villa itself was opened to the public just last month.
Lt. Col. Ferdinando Musella, an official of the art squad of Italy's paramilitary police, the carabinieri, said that the thieves undoubtedly removed the head because it was easier to sell on its own. At least 10 other pieces were stolen from the villa around that time, including a marble statue of a robed woman from the first century B.C. or first century A.D., a Roman copy of a fourth-century B.C. Greek statue of Hercules and a marble head probably depicting the emperor Constantine.
The head of Dionysus, which is badly worn and has a garland of flowers, dates from the first century A.D. Colonel Musella said it appeared not to have suffered any further damage. It was acquired sometime before 1990 by a Japanese museum that went out of business several years afterward, Mr. Kelly said. He did not identify the museum.
The head then appeared in the Christie's catalog. Kate Swan, a spokeswoman for Christie's, said the marble head was consigned to the auction house in September 2002 and was scheduled to be sold on Dec. 12, 2002. It was estimated to bring between $15,000 and $20,000. Ms. Swan said Christie's had a policy of not identifying consigners.
Before the sale Christie's received information that the item might have been stolen, and it was withdrawn, she said. Christie's then contacted the police, who began a long inquiry. After they alerted Rome, the carabinieri checked their roster of stolen items and made a match.
"This was a case where the system worked," Ms. Swan said.
Mr. Kelly said the New York police struggled to trace the statue's provenance but initially had no luck, only closing the case last month after laborious efforts. Of the 23 years since the theft, he said, "It's a mere blink of an eye for a guy whose likeness goes back to the first century."
A photo accompanies the original article ...