The ANU Classics Museum has been working with the Italian government to restore the ownership of ancient objects found in our collection.

An art squad with specialist training, the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage is an Italian policing unit dedicated to searching the world’s collections for illicit material.

For the Carabinieri, ‘Leonardo’ is not just a reference to the Renaissance master Da Vinci, but the name of its cultural database—the largest globally, which has catalogued 8,000,000 works of art, including nearly 1,500,000 stolen pieces.

To match items in the Leonardo database with those found in seized illicit collections, the Carabinieri also created the Stolen Works of Art Detection System (SWOADS) application. SWOADS is a search engine that uses artificial intelligence and semantic and image comparison to monitor the internet, social media and deep web, identifying stolen cultural goods placed on worldwide art markets.

This monitoring capability is unique and the Carabinieri has ensured SWOADS is available to all countries that want to use it in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property.

A vase by another name

Conversations about the repatriation of ancient artefacts have become prominent in recent years, as institutions across the world grapple with legacies of historical collection practices. ANU is no exception.

In 2022, my team at the ANU Classics Museum began a collaborative process with the Italian government to repatriate a key item from the museum’s collection. The object, an Attic black-figure amphora dating from 530 to 520 BCE, was brought to our attention by the Cabinieri after it was identified as a match for one in a Polaroid photo discovered through a criminal investigation.

The subject of the investigation is a well-known personality in the Italian illegal antiquities trade who was active from the 1970s to 1990s. This individual is also connected with the Euphronios Krater, a 2,500-year-old Athenian ceramic vessel used for mixing water and wine, which was sold to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1990 and repatriated to Italy in 2006.

The amphora in the ANU Classics Museum collection, known as the Johnson Vase, was purchased in good faith in 1984 from Sotheby’s in London in honour of the founding professor of Classical Studies at the University, Professor Richard St Clair Johnson.

Detail of the Attic amphora. Photo: Bob Miller/ANU

A vessel with two handles, the amphora would have been used for storing olive oil or wine. One side of the vase depicts the hero of Greek mythology and son of Zeus, Heracles, fighting the Nemean lion. The other shows two warriors in combat. This refined decoration is attributed to a Group E painter, the ‘E’ standing for those artists working in the style and orbit of the Athenian master Exekias.

As Australia’s national university, ANU must be at the forefront of best practice in the management of restitution and repatriation cases. That’s why for more than a year we have been working locally with Colonel Mario Argenio, Police Attaché to the Italian Embassy in Canberra, to liaise with the Carabinieri with the aim of restoring ownership of the amphora to the Italian state.

Smuggled in pasta

After the case of the Johnson Vase was brought to our attention, the Carabinieri asked to see all documentation relating to items in the ANU Classics Museum collection that might stem from Italy. ANU wholeheartedly complied, in line with our collections policies.

Through this process, the Carabinieri identified another problematic item. It was an Apulian red-figure fish plate, also purchased by ANU in 1984, from Holland Coins and Antiquities in the United States (US), operated by David Holland Swingler.

Ostensibly a food importer, Swingler was a key player in the illegal antiquities trade in the 1980s and 1990s. In 2000, Swingler’s California home was raided and a major group of antiquities, as well as extensive archives and polaroids of other items, was seized. During trips to Italy, Swingler sourced material directly from tombaroli—literally ‘tomb robbers’ who undertake illegal excavations—then smuggled the items into the US, hiding them among bundles of pasta and other Italian foods.

True provenance

While the Johnson Vase and the fish plate cases were reactive, where an outside party initiated the process, ANU has also been proactive in bringing an object to the attention of Italian authorities. By combing through our archives we identified that a marble portrait head of a young man purchased by ANU in 1968, again from Sotheby’s in London, was once part of a Vatican-owned collection displayed in the Lateran Palace in Rome.

The Italian government and Vatican are pleased we shone the light on this object, and now the Carabinieri are working with us on the Vatican’s behalf on its possible repatriation.

ANU has formally agreed to repatriate the amphora and fish plate to the ownership of the Italian state, with an official ceremony to take place at a future date.

We are very grateful for the collaborative and positive diplomacy of the Italian Embassy, and the Italian government’s offer to lend the items back to the ANU Classics Museum for a four-year period, with the option of another four-year extension. New labels and interpretations of these objects will reflect the change in ownership and the true provenance of the artefacts.

Although the amphora will no longer bear Johnson’s name, we are ensuring that his contributions are honoured by designating a communal student study space the Johnson Classics Reading Room.

There will no doubt be further developments as we learn more about the real stories that brought these ancient objects into our care.

Top image: Dr Georgia Pike-Rowney holding the Apulian fish plate. Photo: Jamie Kidston/ANU

You may also like

Article Card Image

ANU returns ancient artefacts to the Italian government

An Attic black-figure amphora, a two-handled vessel common in the ancient Mediterranean world, dating back to 530 BCE and connected to a notorious illicit antiquities dealer, will be returned to Italian ownership under a landmark repatriation agreement between the Italian government and The Australian National University.

Article Card Image

Preserving the past: the incredible items in ANU Collections

Spanning continents and centuries, the items in the ANU Collections offer a glimpse into the past, while also providing a valuable resource for research and teaching

Article Card Image

Long live Latin: Why learn a language no one speaks?

Latin has been considered a dead language for hundreds of years, but is it making a revival? Evana Ho reports.

Subscribe to ANU Reporter

Anu Logo

+61 2 6125 5111

The Australian National University, Canberra

CRICOS Provider: 00120C

ABN: 52 234 063 906

EDX Logo
Group of eight Australia Logo