The Australian National University (ANU) has announced its decision to repatriate a 2,500-year-old stolen vase and other looted artifacts to Italy. The vase, depicting a battle scene from Greek mythology, was purchased by ANU in 1984 from Sotheby’s in London. However, Italian officials recently matched the vase to a Polaroid photo found in a previous criminal investigation, proving its illegal excavation and sale. ANU has a policy of unconditional repatriation upon receiving evidence of such cases.
Following the discovery of the vase’s provenance, the Carabinieri art squad, Italy’s specialized police unit for art crimes, requested all documentation related to items in ANU’s Classics Museum. This search led to the identification of another looted artifact, a red fish plate from Italy’s Apulia region, also purchased by ANU in 1984 from Holland Coins and Antiquities. The dealer, David Holland Swingler, was known for sourcing items directly from tomb raiders who conducted illegal excavations in Italy.
ANU will return both the fish plate and the ancient vase to the Italian government, with an official ceremony to be held at a later date. A repatriation agreement, expected to be finalized this year, will allow ANU to display the items on loan for four years, with the option for a four-year extension for research and teaching purposes. ANU also identified a third looted item, a Roman marble portrait head, which will be returned. The university purchased this piece from Sotheby’s in London in 1968.
The decision to repatriate the stolen artifacts aligns with the growing global calls for restitution and repatriation in museums and institutions. ANU aims to be at the forefront of best practices in managing such cases and hopes that engaging in the returns process will attract new visitors to the museum.