Ancient Treasures Uncovered at Australian Museum: Unveiling a Smuggled Italian Artifact Beneath Mounds of Pasta

Italian art detectives have uncovered stolen ancient treasures at a prominent Australian university, including an artifact believed to have been smuggled out of the country disguised as piles of pasta, the institution confirmed.

Australian National University (ANU) announced on Friday that it was collaborating with Italy’s Carabinieri military police “specialist art squad” to repatriate these irreplaceable pieces.

The Attic belly amphora, with two warriors in combat, a slain warrior between their feet and a male attendant figures to either side.

Among the stolen artifacts found in the university’s classics museum was a 2,500-year-old amphora depicting the Greek hero Heracles battling the mythical Nemean lion. This piece has been a prominent exhibit in the ANU Classics Museum for nearly four decades.

Italian authorities stumbled upon an old Polaroid photo of the Heracles vase during the investigation of an unnamed art thief. This led them to suspect that the vase had been illegally looted before finding its way to Australia.

The university in Canberra stated that they purchased the vase in 1984 at a Sotheby’s auction in “good faith,” and they are now “proud” to collaborate with Italian investigators in returning it to its rightful home.

Museum curator Georgia Pike-Rowney described the 530 BC vase as an outstanding specimen of ancient Mediterranean craftsmanship. She explained that it is a double-handled vessel commonly used for storing olive oil or wine.

In conjunction with the museum, the Carabinieri identified a stolen red fish plate from Italy’s Apulia region. They traced it to David Holland Swingler, an American art trafficker and food importer who operated with a culinary method of smuggling.

Dr. Georgia Pike-Rowney with the Apulian fish-plate.
Jamie Kidston/ANU

Pike-Rowney explained that Swingler would acquire materials directly from tomb robbers during his visits to Italy. To smuggle the items into the U.S., he would hide them amidst bundles of pasta and other Italian foods.

Prompted by these discoveries, the Australian National University conducted an internal audit and discovered a Roman marble head belonging to a separate collection owned by the Vatican. The Carabinieri have been granted permission to act on behalf of the Vatican to repatriate this artifact.

Pike-Rowney remarked, “As conversations about the repatriation of ancient artifacts gain prominence, ANU, as Australia’s national university, strives to lead by example in managing restitution and repatriation cases.”

The Italian government has agreed to loan the vase and fish plate to the university until they can be returned at a later date.

This news about the stolen treasures comes just shortly after a renowned art detective returned a stolen Vincent van Gogh painting to a Dutch museum more than three years since its theft.

In a separate incident, authorities in the U.S. seized three artworks believed to have been stolen during the Holocaust from a Jewish art collector.


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