An ancient Roman marble sarcophagus lid of a woman laying on a couch showed up in a warehouse in Queens, earlier this month — and federal investigators think it was stolen.
Today they plan to seize the lid that is believed to have been stolen by Gianfranco Becchina, an Italian antiques dealer who operated a gallery in Switzerland until he was convicted of trafficking thousands of Roman artifacts in 2011. During the investigation, Italian national military police searched his property and found documentation of his dealings in Switzerland — including evidence of the sarcophagus lid, which Becchina allegedly bought damaged in two pieces in Italy and sent to his Swiss gallery in 1981. It was later sold, and a photo of the lid turned up in an exhibition catalog for a show at the Historical Museum of Bern.
Becchina sold stolen art for decades through his Swiss gallery
But for the next 30 years, the sarcophagus lid was in the wind — until it resurfaced, mysteriously restored, in May 2013 at a New York exhibition. It was being shown by dealer Phoenix Ancient Art, but a lawyer for the company told The New York Times that it doesn't own the lid — rather it "only exhibited it on behalf of a client." After the show, the lid was shipped to a storage facility in Queens where it was found by Homeland Security Investigations agents earlier this month.
The client is still unknown and Phoenix claims to have played no role in shipping or storing the lid, which is valued at roughly $4 million. Stolen artifacts have caused constant struggle in the art world, where it's estimated that 85 to 90 percent of pieces on the market do not have documented provenance. It would be impossible to consider all of them for repatriation, but Loretta E. Lynch, the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, says she wants to see artifacts like this sarcophagus lid returned to their proper homes. "Whether looted cultural property enters our ports today or decades ago," Lynch stated in a press release, "it is our responsibility to see that it is returned to its rightful owners, in this case, the Italian people."