The FBI has returned a 2,000-year-old Italian mosaic that may have been missing for nearly a century
In 2020, a lawyer contacted the FBI Art Crime Team on behalf of an anonymous client who was in possession of a giant “mosaic of the mythological figure Medusa,” the FBI said.
The mosaic had been cut into 16 pieces, each weighing between 75 and 200 pounds, and had been stored individually on pallets in a Los Angeles storage unit since the 1980s, according to the FBI.
“The client had no documentation — known in the art world as provenance — so he couldn’t sell the pieces,” the FBI wrote. “Selling art without provenance is tantamount to trying to sell a car without a title.”
It’s unclear how the anonymous client got hold of the artwork or how long it had been in the US, although the FBI says “it may have been missing for 100 years”.
Two special agents – Elizabeth Rivas and Allen Grove – worked to uncover the origin of the mosaic so it could be returned to its rightful owners.
Italian police confirmed that the mosaic was Italian and “was included in the Records of Cultural Property in 1909,” the FBI said. “The only modern record of the mosaic’s existence was a 1959 newspaper advertisement that appeared to show it for sale in the Los Angeles area.”
“The mosaic was handcrafted at a time when people put incredible care and effort into it. It really speaks to the ingenuity and creativity of the time,” Grove said. “It’s not supposed to be in Los Angeles. The mosaic belongs to the people of Rome.
Officials from Italy traveled to Los Angeles to inspect the mosaic and plan how best to bring it back to Rome.
To ensure the artifact arrived in Italy undamaged, the anonymous customer paid for the special shipping crates, which were then shipped through diplomatic channels. The artwork arrived safely in April, the FBI confirmed.
Art experts in Italy are currently cleaning and restoring the mosaic. While some of the storage pallets were infested with termites, the artworks were “largely intact thanks to the air-conditioned facility in which they were kept,” the FBI said.
In the US there are ongoing efforts to return cultural artifacts, which are often illegally sold to private collectors or museums.
In 2021, the Met returned three African art objects, including a pair of 16th-century Benin brass plaques, to Nigeria. The move came after European museums faced increasing pressure to return irreplaceable artifacts looted during the colonial era.