HSI seizes Roman sarcophagus lid linked to convicted art smuggler

HSI seizes Roman sarcophagus lid linked to convicted art smuggler

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NEW YORK – Special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Friday seized an ancient Roman marble sarcophagus lid featuring a high-relief sculpture of a sleeping woman.

According to Italian authorities, the piece matches photographs found in the files of convicted antiquities dealer. A forfeiture complaint was filed Thursday in federal court. As alleged in the complaint, the antiquity is the property of Italy and is therefore forfeitable as stolen property that was unlawfully introduced into the United States. 

Gianfranco Becchina, an Italian citizen, operated an antiquities gallery in Basel, Switzerland. In February 2011, he was convicted in an Italian court of illicitly dealing in antiquities. During the investigation that led to his conviction, Swiss and Italian authorities searched Becchina’s Swiss gallery and warehouse and seized Italian archeological artifacts, commercial documents and photographs of thousands of artifacts that Becchina had sold. Among the documents in Becchina’s archive were photographs, commercial records and customs paperwork pertaining to the marble sarcophagus lid. According to these records, Becchina purchased the marble sarcophagus lid in Italy and shipped it to his gallery in Switzerland in 1981. Thirty years later, the marble sarcophagus lid, now restored, reappeared at a public exhibition in New York. On Feb. 20, HSI agents located the antiquity in a storage facility in Long Island City, New York.

The forfeiture of this sarcophagus lid brings us one step closer to returning this stolen treasure to its rightful owner, the Italian people,” said James T. Hayes Jr. special agent in charge of HSI in New York. HSI is committed to intercepting and recovering stolen cultural artifacts and repatriating them to their rightful owners.”

Whether looted cultural property enters our ports today or decades ago, it is our responsibility to see that it is returned to its rightful owners, in this case, the Italian people,” stated U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Loretta Lynch.  We will continue to use all legal tools available to us to seize, forfeit and repatriate stolen cultural property. Lynch thanked the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and the Italian Carabinieri Protection of Cultural Heritage Command for their assistance.

HSI Rome also assisted in this investigation.

HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illegal importation and distribution of cultural property, including the illicit trafficking of cultural property, especially objects that have been reported lost or stolen. The HSI Office of International Affairs, through its 67 attaché offices in 48 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.

HSI specially trained investigators, assigned to both domestic and international offices, partner with governments, agencies and experts to protect cultural antiquities. They also provide cultural property investigative training to law enforcement partners for crimes involving stolen property and art, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.

Since 2007, more than 7,150 artifacts have been returned to 27 countries, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria, 15th to 18th century manuscripts from Italy and Peru, as well as cultural artifacts from China, Cambodia and Iraq.

Learn more about HSI cultural property, art and antiquities investigations. Members of the public who have information about suspected stolen cultural property are urged to call the toll-free HSI tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete its online tip form.