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Stolen Roman Sarcophagus Recovered from Private British Collection

July 26, 2012

The alabaster sarcophagus was presented at a press conference in Rome before it was returned to its home town of Aquino.

An ancient Roman sarcophagus stolen more than 20-years ago from a deconsecrated church south of Rome was recently discovered in a private London-based collection, according to The Art Newspaper, and has been repatriated to Italy. Stylistically, the tomb’s frieze appears a late work (the article is silent on the dating) and the subject matter – a chariot race – is dynamic and expressive.  Three charioteers are seen racing ad seriatim across the broad side of the alabaster sarcophagus past various architectural details in the Circus Maximus.   Beneath the hooves of each set of horses appear figures who are being trampled.

Here are the details of the discovery and repatriation:

An ancient Roman alabaster sarcophagus, which was stolen more than 20 years ago from a church south of Rome, was returned to Italy on 18 July. It came from the London-based collection of an unnamed antiquities, flown back to Rome on a cargo flight in a container reportedly displaying the official seal of the Italian Embassy in London.

A special team from the cultural heritage protection division of Italy’s police force, the Guardia di Finanza, gruppo Tutela Patrimonio Archeologico, lead by Massimo Rossi, conducted the repatriation operation.

The sarcophagus, which dates from between the second and third centuries BC, was presented at a press conference in Rome and then returned to its hometown of Aquino, around 100km south of the capital, where it is on show in the deconsecrated church of Santa Marta.

Although official sources have not confirmed this, the Italian newspaper Il Giornale has reported that the private collection in question belonged to the late US antiquities dealer Robert Hecht, who died on 9 February. Hecht had been accused in Roman court of conspiring to receive antiquities illegally excavated and exported from Italy, but his trial ended in January without a verdict when the statute of limitations ran out. Il Giornale also reported that the executor of Hecht’s will first contacted Italian authorities.

The work, which features in relief scenes of chariot races at Rome’s Circus Maximus, was stolen in 1991 from the Madonna della Libera church in Aquino. It was one of Italy’s great, unsolved antiquities thefts. No one has ever been charged with its theft.

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