Princeton University Art Museum voluntarily returns ancient sculpture to Italy

The Princeton University Art Museum has volunteered to return to the Italian government an ancient Roman sculptural relief in its permanent collection.  The museum contacted the Italian authorities after its own research revealed that the work was taken out of Italy without a legal export permit before being acquired by the museum from New York dealer Peter Sharrer in 1985. The museum’s offer extends a five-decade commitment to the responsible resolution of issues concerning provenance and ownership of works of art and cultural artifacts.

The work in question is a fragmentary Roman marble funerary monument in the form of a pediment, with a Latin inscription and a bust in high relief representing a deceased, bearded man named Aphthonetus. The monument dates from the reign of Hadrian (117-38 A.D.). The work was first published by the museum in 1986 and has been on continuous view since that time.

In March 2000, while conducting research on the Princeton University Art Museum’s collection, Michael Padgett, the museum’s curator of ancient art, encountered an unillustrated reference to the work in a 1997 scholarly publication on Greek and Latin inscriptions in the United States. The reference cites a 1991 study by Zaccaria Mari who, although apparently unaware that the monument was in the collection at Princeton, provides a full account of its discovery in Colle Tasso, near Tibur, in 1981-82, when land was being cleared for plowing. The account does not explain whether the work was excavated by Italian archaeologists, or by the landowner or by some other party, and it does not provide information on who subsequently retained possession of the work or where it was housed. Nonetheless, it is evident from the account that the monument was discovered on Italian soil prior to its acquisition by Princeton in 1985.

Having made the connection between Mari’s account and the Princeton monument, Padgett immediately notified the museum’s acting director, Peter Bunnell, concluding his report by acknowledging that the museum will forfeit a significant work in its collection and that “it is the right thing to do.” The museum also notified Susan M. Taylor, who recently had been appointed director of the Princeton University Art Museum and was completing her service as director of the Davis Museum and Cultural Center, Wellesley College. A former board member of the Association of Art Museum Directors and co-chair of its professional practices committee, Taylor was due to assume her responsibilities at Princeton in August 2000.

On Aug. 18, 2000, Taylor reviewed Padgett’s report and notified Anna Maria Reggiani, archaeological superintendent of the region of Lazio, of Padgett’s discovery, requesting her cooperation in resolving the legal disposition of the monument. Reggiani soon responded that her agency also had conducted research on the work and had likewise concluded that the monument had left Italy without a legal export permit. She referred the matter to the authorities in the culture division of the Italian Carabinieri, which oversees repatriation of Italian cultural artifacts.

Official notification also was made to the Italian judicial authorities, the American Embassy in Rome, the Office of International Affairs, U.S. Department of Justice, and the U.S Customs Service, all of whom have cooperated in the evaluation of Princeton’s findings and the museum’s offer to voluntarily return the work to Italy.  In March 2002, an Italian judge delegated Marshall Angelo Ragusa of the Carabinieri to oversee the work’s disposition. Ragusa and Taylor are meeting this week in Princeton to finalize plans for the transfer of the monument’s ownership to the Italian government.

“We are grateful to Marshall Ragusa and to the various agencies of the Italian and U.S. governments for their assistance in returning this work to Italy and in righting the wrongs perpetrated prior to its acquisition by this museum 17 years ago,” Taylor said. “We are proud to be an active partner in the ongoing international effort to resolve ownership claims for stolen objects and in discouraging the illegal trade of art and cultural artifacts. Everyone involved has worked to resolve this issue appropriately, and we are thankful for their participation.”

The Princeton University Art Museum has requested that the Italian government keep the Roman monument on long-term loan to the museum so that the work can remain accessible to scholars and the general public. This request is based on a January 2001 agreement between the Italian government and the U.S. Department of State concerning the export and cultural exchange of antiquities from Italy. In the event that the loan request is not approved, Princeton also has requested full information on the disposition of the work in Italy so that the university and its museum can continue to facilitate research and scholarship based on the work.

The Princeton University Art Museum has a long history of successfully resolving ownership claims for works of art and cultural artifacts in its collection. In 1953, the museum returned to the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome an ancient Roman marble head of a goat stolen during World War II; the mayor of Rome gave the sculpture to Princeton in recognition of the museum’s commitment to learning. Last year, the museum reached an amicable agreement with the heirs of the rightful owner of a painting by Pinturicchio which had been sold in 1941 in Nazi-occupied France and purchased in good faith by Princeton in 1994.

The Princeton University Art Museum supports and enhances the university’s goals of teaching, research, and service. The museum does this through the study, preservation, conservation, exhibition and development of its collections. Through direct and sustained access to original works of art, the museum contributes to the development of critical thinking and visual literacy at Princeton.

As one of the richest cultural resources in the state of New Jersey, the museum serves the local community, the region and beyond. Scholarly exhibitions, publications, symposia, and an active loan program extend the museum’s reach to a national and international audience, assuring its continuing vitality and its active participation in the university’s primary commitment to advance and impart knowledge.