DA Bragg returns 19 looted antiquities worth $19 million to Italy

October 13, 2023

When he is not going after the former president or failing to fully prosecute dangerous and violent criminals, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg likes to recover and return stolen antiquities and artwork to their nations of origin.

Just this week, DA Bragg's office held a ceremony to repatriate 19 pieces of ancient art to Italy that are collectively valued at around $19 million that had been seized as part of multiple ongoing criminal investigations into dealers of looted antiquities, according to ARTnews.

That ceremony came about two months after the DA's office had similarly returned 266 recovered antiquities to Italian authorities in August that were likely worth tens of millions of dollars combined.

Looted antiquities returned to Italy

In a Tuesday press release, DA Bragg announced the repatriation to Italy of the 19 antiquities valued at roughly $19 million that had been "seized under several ongoing investigations against major antiquities traffickers."

During the ceremony at the Italian Consulate in New York City, Bragg said, "Italy has been an epicenter of organized antiquities looting for decades, but we continue to undo the damage thanks to our incredible team of investigators, analysts, and prosecutors. I thank the Italian government for its continued extraordinary cooperation, and our colleagues at HSI for their partnership. During my tenure, I am proud to have returned more than 275 objects back to the people of Italy."

The items were formally received by Gennaro Sangiuliano, Italy's Minister of Culture, who said, "I wish to thank Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, his Office, and Homeland Security Investigations for their effective cooperation with Italian Carabinieri, a gold standard in the international fight against illicit trafficking of cultural goods.

"Together, in the last twelve months, they have traced and recovered hundreds of looted or stolen Italian antiquities and returned them to the communities they belong," the minister added. "Cultural heritage is the soul of a Nation. We are grateful to American authorities for their support in our efforts to bring illicitly traded Italian art back home."

Shady dealers, traffickers, and looters responsible for stealing and selling ancient artwork

DA Bragg's press release noted that these and other stolen antiquities that have been recovered and repatriated are often sourced back to shady traffickers who secretly work with local looters to steal valuable ancient artwork and sculptures that are then cleaned and restored and "supplied with false provenance" before then being sold for quite lucrative prices to unsuspecting art dealers and collectors and museums around the world.

At the center of some, though not all, of Bragg's investigations and seizures is a British art dealer named Robin Symes, who is also under investigation for trafficking by U.K. authorities, as well as a late dealer named Jerome Eisenberg of the Royal-Athena Galleries, according to ARTnews.

Symes was reportedly a key component in the trafficking of most of the 266 antiquities that were returned to Italy in August, as they had been seized earlier in the year from a New York storage unit he owned, per the Associated Press.

Some of those objects had been offered to a museum in Houston, Texas but were rejected by the curator who was suspicious about the provenance of the antiquities and alerted authorities.

As for the late Eisenberg and his Royal-Athena Galleries, ARTnews reported that at least 125 previously looted antiquities have been recovered and returned to their nations of origin since 2017.

Thousands of looted antiquities worth hundreds of millions of dollars have been recovered and returned

DA Bragg, working in conjunction with New York's Antiquities Trafficking Unit, has reportedly recovered and repatriated more than 1,000 antiquities valued collectively at more than $215 million to at least 27 different nations since taking office.

The ATU, which predates Bragg's tenure as DA, has reportedly recovered more than 4,600 ancient pieces of art worth more than $440 million that were looted and stolen from 30 different countries. To date, more than 2,500 of those antiquities have already been returned while around 1,600 more are in the process of being returned to where they originated from.

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