The riddle of an alleged theft from Italy's famed Riace bronzes has resurfaced 35 years after they were lifted from the Calabrian seabed.
A photo of the 1972 find has reignited speculation that the two figures were stripped of a shield and possibly other objects - and even a companion who has never been seen. The photo was put on display recently by a Riace cultural association and spotted by Riace bronze sleuth Giuseppe Bragho', an amateur archaeologist who has long been arguing that the site was raided by art thieves.
Bragho' says the snap, taken just after the statues were brought ashore, is ''unequivocal evidence'' that a shield was torn from the left arm of the so-called 'younger' statue.
''The photo clearly shows an object protruding from the statue's left hand. It's easy to guess that it was the handle of the shield that has never been discovered,'' Bragho' said. Bragho' said the photo should ''lend fresh impetus'' to an inquiry opened last year on the basis of his claims. The local sleuth, who has written a book outlining his suspicions, says he has ''tracked down and photographed a series of documents that indicate an alarming scenario''.
He says a third statue - ''completely different from the other two'' - as well as two shields and a lance, were seen lying on the seabed by the finder, scuba diver Stefano Mariottini.
Bragho' points to a statement made by Mariottini the day after he discovered the statues on 16 August 1972.
In the statement, he refers to ''a group of statues''.
Bragho' also highlights another section of Mariottini's statement in which he reportedly said he saw ''three statues, probably made of bronze...one of them lying on its side with a shield on its left arm''.
In addition, the expert has provided prosecutors with the name of a man who allegedly helped smuggle a shield and lance away from the scene of the discovery.
ONE OF ITALY'S MOST IMPORTANT FINDS OF THE LAST 100 YEARS.
The bronzes were discovered by Mariottini, an amateur scuba diver from Rome, during a holiday on the Calabrian coast.
They turned out to be one of Italy's most important archaeological finds of the last 100 years.
The statues are of two virile men, presumably warriors or gods, who possibly held lances and shields at one time. At around two metres, they are larger than life.
The 'older' man, known as Riace B, wears a helmet, while the 'younger' Riace A has nothing covering his rippling hair.
Both are naked.
Although the statues are cast in bronze, they feature silver lashes and teeth, copper red lips and nipples, and eyes made of ivory, limestone and a glass and amber paste.
Italy is renowned for its archaeological treasures but the Riace bronzes have attracted particular attention.
This is partly because of their exceptionally realistic rendering and partly owing to the rarity of ancient bronze statues, which tended to be melted down and the metal reused.
Mariottini, who spotted the statues 300 metres off the coast and eight metres underwater, said the bronze was so realistic he initially thought he'd found the remains of a corpse.
When they first went on display in 1981, a million people came to see them and the pair were even featured on a commemorative postage stamp.
Today the statues pull some 130,000 visitors each year to the Reggio Calabria museum housing them.
How or when the statues sank to their watery resting place also remains a mystery, as divers uncovered no wreckage in the vicinity.
While remains could have drifted to the seabed some distance away it is more probable that the statues were tossed overboard, either to lighten the ship's load in a storm or to prevent them falling into the hands of pirates.
Italian cultural authorities recently sent a fresh scientific mission to the area after a US ship reported detecting traces of underwater metal near the spot the statues were discovered.