Giulia Domna’s Story of Illicit Trafficking

2017-05-12

On 2 December 2016, Dutch police returned the 2nd century marble bust of Roman Empress Giulia Domna to the Italian authorities.  The 31-centimetre head had been stolen in 2013 during an exhibition at the Canopus Museum at the Villa Adriana (Tivoli), a site inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999.

“She is beautiful, priceless for our heritage and history.  The crime, the trafficking, the investigations and the prosecutions are moving behind us, and we celebrate her return to the Villa Adriana,” said Officer Fabrizio Rossi of the Italian Carabinieri Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage.

The story picks up when two Dutch citizens consigned Giulia for auction at Christie’s in Amsterdam in 2015.  Christie’s’ staff became suspicious even though they found no listing for the sculpture in databases of stolen art.  As the bust was recognized from photos taken at the Villa Adriana and questions of provenance were raised, Christies contacted the Dutch and Italian authorities. The professional approach of the auction house was key to the joint criminal investigation that immediately got underway. It led to the police seizure of the bust of Giulia Domna, and to the arrest and prosecution of the Dutch citizens who had stolen it and then tried to put it on the market.


© UNESCO

“The return of a piece of art like the Giulia Domna bust back to Italy is a tremendous success that came about through the diligence and cooperation of the auction house, the Dutch and Italian police, and the magistrates.  Too many instances of plunder, theft and trafficking of cultural objects go unseen or unsolved, and many criminals are lining their pockets,” said Officer Rossi.  “This is why the UNESCO 1970 Convention and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention concerning illicit trafficking are so important. They provide countries with the legal and practical framework in which to prevent and fight illicit trafficking and effect restitutions, raise awareness of the problem, and strengthen cooperation between police and customs agencies nationally and internationally. They also provide a forum for awareness raising campaigns that can help both professionals and the public beware of the risk of inadvertantly becoming accomplices to an illegal trade” said Mechtild Rössler, Director of UNESCO’s Division for Heritage.

The high profits at stake and the relative ease of marketing stolen objects, especially with the growth of e-commerce, contribute to the rise in illicit trafficking of cultural heritage.  Criminal groups employ complex schemes that often entail operations in several countries. While some collectors and dealers are willing to pay high prices for a rare cultural object although it may be stolen, the public needs to be better informed about what to look for and the questions to ask before making a purchase.  Awareness-raising and cooperation among dealers, auction houses, INTERPOL, customs and police agents across borders are essential.  Experts are calling for better laws, security, training and tracking systems to keep up with criminals who are becoming more and more sophisticated.

Museums and religious, historic and archaeological sites are the main targets of cultural heritage thieves, and must scale up their safety measures, inventories and databases, particularly in developing countries.   Conflict situations and natural disasters increase the risk of theft and trafficking dramatically, and UNESCO, with its partners, has been providing appropriate training to heritage and security professionals in many countries, notably Afghanista, Ecuador, Mali, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. 

As recognized by UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, which has been ratified by 132 countries, prevention and international cooperation are paramount in the fight against illicit trafficking. With regard to conflict situations in which trafficking of pillaged objects is financing terrorism, UNESCO’s advocacy helped bring about a number of pertinent United Nations Security Council Resolutions, including Resolution 2347 (March 2017); the first to focus on cultural heritage in conflict. It specifically recognizes “the indispensable role of international cooperation in crime prevention and criminal justice responses to counter trafficking in cultural property,” and aims to prevent “looting and smuggling of cultural property from archaeological sites, museums, libraries, archives, and other sites.” 

From 15 through 19 May 2017, international experts and representatives of States Parties to the 1970 Convention will meet at UNESCO’s Headquarters to discuss cases, tools, e-commerce trends, and next steps in the fight against illicit trafficking.  The meeting will begin under the gaze of Giulia Domna.  The bust has been on display at the “Recovered Treasures” exhibition at UNESCO, which is sponsored by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and by the Carabinieri Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage. Her next stop is back home at the Villa Adriana.

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