Sensitive to Art & its Discontents
A long-lost mosaic has made its way home to Italy thanks to an anonymous tip and some intensive efforts on behalf of the FBI’s Art Crimes division. The piece in question is a massive “mosaic of the mythological figure Medusa,” according to an art attorney representing the anonymous client who was in possession of the work — which had been cut into 16 pieces, set on pallets, and tucked away in a Los Angeles storage facility since the 1980s, with each pallet weighing between 75 and 200 pounds. Thus, the process of repatriating the art was not just a question of researching its history, but also one of logistics.
“I thought I’d be investigating art crime and repatriating antiquities,” Special Agent Allen Grove said in a statement from the FBI. “But so much of the work behind the scenes is communications, contracts, and getting the right items to the right people.”
In this case, the right people are the people of Rome, where the mosaic was handcrafted some 2,000 years ago. Italian police found cultural property records that noted its existence in Rome in 1909, but after that, “the only modern record of the mosaic’s existence was a 1959 newspaper ad that appeared to show it for sale in the Los Angeles area,” according to the FBI.
The client, presumably some part of the chain of custody regarding the clandestine provenance of the work, paid for specialized shipping crates, necessary to get the mosaic pieces sent through diplomatic channels back to Italy where they belong. The mosaic pieces arrived intact in April and are currently being restored and reassembled by experts. Though there was some termite damage to some of the pallets, according to reporting by CNN, the mosaic fared well overall in the climate-controlled unit where it was secretly stored for decades.
“The mosaic was handcrafted from an age where people put an amazing amount of care and effort into it. It really speaks to the ingenuity and creativity of the time,” said Grove, who also worked with Special Agent Elizabeth Rivas on the repatriation effort. “It’s not meant to be in Los Angeles. The mosaic belongs to the people of Rome. It allows us to understand a bit about the history of humans 2,000 years ago.”
This is just the latest in a busy year for United States-Italy art relations. Over the summer, New York state officials returned dozens of artifacts and antiquities worth millions to Italy. Many of these are destined for display at the newly-founded Museum of Rescued Art, housed in the complex of the National Roman Museum. And this summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art relinquished 21 Ancient Greek and Roman artifacts to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, including a marble head of Athena valued at $3 million, that will be returned to Italy.
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Hyperallergic is a forum for serious, playful, and radical thinking about art in the world today. Founded in 2009, Hyperallergic is headquartered in Brooklyn, New York.


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