NEMI, Italy — A looted mosaic that once decorated a ship of the Roman Emperor Caligula and ended up as a coffee table in New York City finally returned home Thursday, as details emerged about the lucky break in the investigation that got it there.
Officials unveiled the mosaic at the Museum of Roman Ships, which was built in the 1930s specifically to house the treasures of two huge ceremonial ships Caligula commissioned in around AD 40. The ships eventually sank and were excavated from the depths of Lake Nemi, in the Alban hills south of Rome, starting in the late 1890s.
The mosaic, a 1.5 square-meter geometric print in rich green, reddish-purple and white stone, was part of an inlaid floor on one of the ships, which were designed and decorated essentially as floating palazzi in a testament to Caligula’s greatness.
It’s unclear when the mosaic passed into private hands or under what circumstances. But eventually it was purchased by a New York antiquities dealer and her Italian journalist husband, who shipped it back to New York and made a coffee table out of it for their Park Avenue apartment.
And there it sat, relatively undisturbed, until Oct. 23, 2013. That night, at the Bulgari jewelry store on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue, marble and stones expert Dario Del Bufalo was giving a lecture and book signing for his new book “Porphyry,” on the rare reddish-purple stone preferred by the Roman emperors, that was attended by New York's cultural elite.
As he was signing books, Del Bufalo said he overheard two women who were leafing through his book exclaim “This is Helen’s mosaic! This is Helen’s mosaic!‘” after seeing a photograph of the work.
“I didn’t understand,” Del Bufalo said Thursday as the mosaic was put on display at the Nemi museum. “There were a lot of art experts and I asked ‘Who is Helen?’ And they told me she is a woman who has a house on Park Avenue and this same mosaic.”
Helen was Helen Fioratti, the antiquities dealer, and soon she would be caught up in the investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, the Italian culture ministry and carabinieri art squad, all of which were hunting down antiquities that had been looted from Italy and ended up in private collections and top U.S. museums.
The Manhattan DA's office in October 2017 announced it had seized the mosaic and turned it back over to Italian consular authorities, who repatriated it to Italy. It has been on temporary exhibition since then in Italy but on Thursday was returned to the Nemi museum, with the other artifacts from Caligula’s ships.
Fioratti told The Associated Press at the time of the seizure that she had bought the mosaic in good faith more than 40 years earlier while she was living in Italy and had been told it belonged to the aristocratic Barberini family. She was never prosecuted, and decided not to contest the seizure because she believed it would cost too much and take too long.
“It was an innocent purchase,” she said then, adding that the sale had been brokered by an Italian art historian known for his work recovering art stolen by the Nazis. “We were very happy with it. We loved it. We had it for years and years, and people always complimented us on it.”
Del Bufalo said the district attorney's office eventually asked him to authenticate the mosaic. He said he immediately recognized the round porphyry pieces used, as well as the restoration of a vertical crack.
“When they showed me the photos of the mosaic belonging to this woman who was living in New York, I told them; ‘Yes, it is exactly that same one,’” he said.
Del Bufalo suggested the mosaic might never been exhibited in the museum, which was turned into a bomb shelter during World War II and then was damaged by fire. Unlike other relics, he noted, the mosaic shows no evidence of fire damage, suggesting it had either been spirited out before or during the war, or had never been there and had been in private hands since it was excavated.
Nemi Mayor Alberto Bertucci said the city was proud to be welcoming the mosaic back home.
“The mosaic testifies how important and luxurious these imperial ships were,” he said at the unveiling Thursday. “These ships were like buildings: They were not supposed to sail and they confirm the greatness of this emperor who wanted to show the greatness of his rule of the Roman empire through these ships.”
Winfield contributed from Rome.
Paolo Santalucia And Nicole Winfield, The Associated Press