“IN A STUDY AIMED AT ASSESSING THE EXTENT OF ETRUSCAN TOMB LOOTING IN CENTRAL ITALY, LERICI ESTIMATED THAT, OF THE 550 TOMBS HE DISCOVERED, NEARLY 400 OF THEM HAD BEEN STRIPPED OF THEIR BURIAL TREASURES AND IRRETRIEVABLY DAMAGED BY TOMBAROLI.”

—Proulx, “Archaeological Site Looting in ‘Glocal’ Perspective,”

American Journal of Archaeology 117, 2013


Home to a rich legacy of history and culture, Italy boasts 50 UNESCO World Heritage Sites (more than any other country) such as Pompei, Verona, Mt. Etna, and the Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie–home of the “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci. The same allure that draws over 40 million tourists a year to Italy also drives an insatiable demand for Italian and Roman antiquities and artifacts. Reports from the Carabinieri Nucleo Tutela del Patrimonio Artistico indicate that looting is still a significant problem, particularly in the areas of Sicily, Lazio, Campania, Apulia, and Sardinia. In order to protect its precious cultural heritage, Italy has established bilateral agreements with other countries, including the United States and China.

• Import restrictions on certain categories of archeological material into the U.S.

• Forfeited material to be returned to Italy

• Italy to increase internal efforts to protect its heritage, particularly from looting and smuggling

• Italy to strengthen cooperation with nations within the Mediterranean region

• Italy to encourage further interchange of archeological materials for study and public appreciation through long-term loans, joint excavations and academic exchange programs

• Italy to strengthen export controls and law enforcement efforts

• A review of the agreement’s effectiveness in consideration for extension

Here is the full text of the bilateral agreement signed on January 19, 2001.

SAFE fully supports Italy’s request for renewal because the bilateral agreement has proven effective. According to statistics from the Italian Carabinieri-Tutela Patrimonio Culturale (TPC), recovered archeological artifacts originally taken from clandestine digs have declined 90% since the signing of the bilateral agreement.

While the bilateral agreement has been an effective deterrent since its signing, looting continues. See:

  • “Italian art police recover 60,000 stolen, looted works, artifacts,” The Associated Press, January 15 2010. “Police figures show the number of illegal archaeological excavations discovered in 2009 decreased dramatically, from 238 in 2008 to just 58 in 2009.”
  • “The great smash and grab” by Rose George, The Independent, May 1 2005. “Italy is a treasure trove of buried antiquities. But now they are being systematically plundered.”
  • “The ransack of Italy’s history” by Rory Carroll, Dante News, June 2003. “Italy is home to countless hidden tombs and burial chambers bearing antiquities dating back thousands of years. For academics and archaeologists they are historical treasure troves, but for an illicit band of criminals they are a passport into a billion-pound international smuggling operation.”
  • Looted antiquities worth millions recovered from black market by Italian police,” The Independent, July 2010. “The artefacts were illegally taken from archaeological sites in Lazio, Puglia, Sardinia and the area of Magna Grecia – southern Italy and Sicily. They span a period off 1,200 years, dating from the eighth century BC to the fourth AD.”
  • “Italian Police Recover Trove of Etruscan Antiquities,” The New York Times, June 2013. “Five people are under investigation for unauthorized excavation of archeological artifacts, possession of artifacts that belong to the state and receiving stolen goods.”
  • Italy threatens to sue UK firm over ancient ‘loot’,” The Art Newspaper, Jan 2014. “Italy is demanding the immediate return of a cache of antiquities stored in London and warning that if it does not receive information about the status of the collection within 30 days, it may sue the firm responsible for the objects.”
  • The following firsthand account of the damaging effects of looting came from Professor Brian McConnell, who conducted archeological field research in Sicily for over two decades. This was presented by SAFE intern Rebecca Davidson at the CPAC hearing on September 8, 2005. All photographs were taken by Prof. McConnell:

Photo 1, taken in spring of 2003 shows how a bobcat-style tractor used by looters damaged the archeological site Poggio Cocola (municipality of Paternò, province of Catania, Sicily). The area, known to the Soprintendenza per i Beni Culturali ed Ambientali di Catania (excavation and survey conducted in 1995), is mentioned in several publications. The remains—dating from the tenth through the fifth century B.C.—indicate the presence of a settlement of the indigenous Sikel people. The site has an urban grid plan and clear evidence of Greek influence in architecture and material culture; the ancient place —Aetna-Inessa— is possibly associated with this location. Various cultural materials (much pottery and stones possibly used at one time in construction) were found in the spoil piles during a formal inspection of the site by the Soprintendenza. Prof. Brian E. McConnell was present at that inspection.

Photo 2 shows the deep cut from the Bobcat-style digging machine.

Photo 3, dated about 1998, shows a deep bulldozer cut at the looted site of Monte Castellaccio (municipality of Paternò, province of Catania, Sicily). Part of the same settlement system as Poggio Cocola, the site is closer to the Simeto River; remains excavated here date from as early as the Early Bronze Age (possible Paleolithic remains have been cited in the area), but the bulk dates between the tenth and the sixth centuries B.C.

In 1991 four bulldozers were seen digging into the archeological strata. Representatives of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Culturali ed Ambientali di Catania stopped this activity even though one bulldozer operator pulled out a pistol in order to scare the inspector. Since then a program of excavation, public education, and the inclusion of public participation in official archeological excavations of the Soprintendenza through the association Sicili Antica have focused on this site. Dr. Brian E. McConnell directed scientific research at this location.

Photo 4 shows two men were encountered by an excavation crew at Monte Catalfaro (municipality of Mineo, province of Catania, Sicily) of the Soprintendenza per i Beni Culturali ed Ambientali di Catania on a morning in June of 1999. They were carrying a metal detector and digging equipment and upon questioning, admitted that they were searching for “Byzantine things.” They were arrested by the Carabinieri of the Mineo station, and a complaint against them was filed. Prof. McConnell, who took this digital photograph was present as scientific director of the excavation.

Italy, in short, has perhaps the best enforcement of antiquities laws of any country. The Carabinieri’s Tutela Patrimonio Culturale (TPC), the Protection of the Cultural Heritage Unit of Italy’s national police, has been at the forefront in policing cultural heritage, not only in Italy but worldwide. Read more about the Carabinieri in Policing antiquities in Italy: the Carabinieri Art Squad.

The Carabinieri led the effort to protect archeological sites in Iraq as well as the recovery of looted artifacts. In The Massacre of Mesopotamian Archaeology by Joanne Farchakh, Dr. Donny George said, “The Italian Carabinieri (soldiers) are the only force that worked on this issue [looting] for a few months.” Not only that, in late 2003, members of the Carabinieri sacrificed their lives guarding Nasiriyah sites in Iraq. Still, the Carabinieri’s work in Iraq continues to this day, including training of Iraqi site guards. Furthermore, Italian troops will provide funds for the restoration of the Nasiriyah Museum (AKI, August 17, 2005).

Italy’s Special Carabinieri Unit Fights Art Looting (April 10, 2006, The Wall Street Journal)

Italy shows heritage-saving heroics in Rome exhibit (November 11, 2005, ANSA)

Italy lends experience and expertise to China in China, Italy team up to protect cultural relics (February 10, 2004, People’s Daily)

Unesco’s ‘blue berets’ to rescue cultural treasures, “a new kind of rapid reaction force to step in wherever art treasures are threatened by war or natural disaster…will initially be formed entirely of Italians and could include members of Italy’s paramilitary police, the Carabinieri.” (The Guardian, October 28, 2004)

Regarding Italian material, some of the Carabinieri’s more notable successes since the signing of the bilateral agreement are:

Italian police catch tomb raider, (BBC News, December 28, 2005)

Italian police recover thousands of artifacts, (Associated Press, July 26, 2005)

Police find 100 stolen Roman artefacts, (Breakingnews.ie, December 18, 2004)

In 2004, 17,000 stolen artifacts were recovered

In late 2003, more than 2,000 archeological artifacts looted from Italy were seized in Switzerland

Fragments of a rare life-size ivory head stolen from a tomb in Italy was recovered in London in 2003

In light of recent threats, Italy moves to protect its heritage from terror, (The Guardian, August 20, 2005)

The debate surrounding cultural heritage preservation at CPAC public hearings has always been dominated by the cognoscenti—archeologists, art historians, dealers, collectors, and museum curators whose careers or professional interests are directly affected by the outcome. The general assumption is that the public has no interest in the matter and is therefore unfamiliar with the issues. As a result, when decisions are made about how our cultural resources are managed and protected, the public’s opinion is seldom consulted. SAFE proposes making these public hearings an opportunity to find out whether the “average” American truly cares or not, and how s/he feels about the matter.

In order to gauge public opinion about this subject SAFE launched the “Say YES to Italy” campaign, reaching out to both experts and non-experts on the issues as well as those who cannot travel to Washington to testify.

We conducted our “Say YES to Italy” campaign by first providing information. We linked our web pages directly to the Cultural Property website of the State Department and handed out the same material. In other words, we based our campaign on the U.S. government’s decision five years ago to grant Italy’s request.

How SAFE gathered public opinion

As the majority of the population is unfamiliar with CPAC, the CPIA, or the 1970 UNESCO Convention, SAFE created pages of background material on our website with numerous links to the State Department’s web site and other related material. We invited the public to learn about the issues and asked anyone who supported the renewal to sign an online appeal and help us spread the word.

To bring the issue directly to the public, we also took to the streets. Across the country, SAFE members approached people at random in parks during lunch hours, at public outdoor events on the weekends, and wherever crowds gather. Speaking to small groups or individuals, we handed out flyers with information similar to our web pages and asked those who think the Agreement should be renewed to sign their names to the statement “I support Italy’s request for continued import restrictions on certain categories of antiquities into the U.S. Please say YES to Italy and help protect its cultural heritage from destruction.” We asked for a name, address, email address, in addition to a signature. We did not ask any other personal questions such as professions or interests. We asked people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, at random.

In some cases, we explained the impact the Agreement had on the sale of Italian antiquities in this country. We spent time answering questions and explaining the issues further. We also offered the option to sign online after people have had a chance to visit our website and read the materials, but most people chose to sign right away. We did this in New York, Boston, Sacramento, and Washington, DC.

Our goals

We wanted to find out, when made aware, did the average American care about stopping the global situation of looting and the illicit antiquities trade? Did s/he approve of the current remedies, did s/he want legislative efforts already in place to continue? In the case of the Bilateral Agreement between the U.S. and Italy, the answer was a resounding YES. In all, over 90% of those who were asked agreed to sign our appeal to CPAC.

Our findings

To our knowledge, a campaign such as “Say YES to Italy” had not been conducted before. SAFE is approaching it with a spirit of experimentation as we are not professional pollsters. However, we are pleased to report that our findings approximate those of a 2000 Harris poll in which 96% of the American public favor laws that protect cultural heritage. Almost everyone who declined took our handouts so they could consider doing so later.

SAFE’s presentation at CPAC

On September 8 2005, SAFE presented the results of its “Say YES to Italy” campaign to the Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC): nearly 1,000 signatures from members of the public to support the renewal of the U.S.-Italy bilateral agreement. Of these nearly 500 were gathered online, and about 450 were signed in person.

Nearly 100 signatories chose to include statements elaborating on why the agreement should be renewed.

In addition, these statements from SAFE were also presented:

Thanks to the hard work of all those involved in the campaign and all those who advocated the protection of Italy’s cultural heritage, the MoU was extended in 2011. A copy of the amendment and renewal can be found here.

These statements are taken from close to than 1,000 petitions gathered from the SAFE’s 2005 Say YES to Italy campaign. They are posted here with permission from the authors.

As a Ph.D. candidate in archaeology, I have personally witnessed the devastating effects of looting inspired by unrestricted trade in antiquities. I strongly support a renewal of the bilateral agreement to protect the cultural heritage of Italy.

Seth Button, Ann Arbor, MI

The goodwill and respect shown by the U.S. with regard to Italy’s heritage should continue on and if at all possible branch out into formerly unprotected categories of antiquities.

Adrienne Donovan, Rockland, MA

Non-renewal of the restrictions would send a very negative sign to our scientific counterparts in Italy and to the Italian cultural authorities. As Americans interested in maintaining a strong relationship between the US and Italy, we must do everything we can to ensure that these import restrictions are renewed. As scientists devoted to the discovery, interpretation, and preservation of Italy’s cultural heritage, we must do everything we can to stop the looting of that country’s precious cultural heritage.

Bernard Frischer, Charlottesville, VA

I am an archaeological professional and am deeply heartened by cooperative, international efforts such as the US/Italy antiquities agreement. It represents all the best ideals of shared knowledge, respect, and responsibility.

C.J. H., Somerville, MA

Backing Italy’s laws prohibiting the export of their cultural property with laws prohibiting the import into the USA is the only ethical and right way to maintain the valuable historical past and to preserve international relations.

Lisa Kahn, Tampa, FL

The bilateral agreement with Italy will help prevent the despoilation of archaeological sites. It is imperative to vote YES.

John F. Kenfield, Princeton, NJ

The whole world is indebted to Italy for the invention and preservation of so many works of art and cultural heritage–we owe them this assistance in carrying the burden of protecting the history of civilization.

Anna Kirwan, Sunderland, MA

The treasures of the past are bequeathed to all of us and to all of our descendents. They should not be stolen from sites or museums for the financial profit and pleasure of the few.

H. M., West Midlands, UK

Please renew the agreement. It is extremely important for the understanding of the past to prevent illegal export and import of ancient artifacts. Only in the proper context of find spots can artifacts be best interpreted.

Martha J. Payne, Muncie, IN

Our history is a non-renewable resource. Don’t squander it.

Matthew Piscitelli, Boston, MA

Please honor Italy’s cultural heritage by continuing restrictions on antiquities that have been stolen from museums and archaeological sites. Heaven knows we need to maintain the few international friendships we still have. This is the decent thing to ask.

R.G.S., Gainesville, GA

Archaeological sites are finite resources and it is the job of governing authorities to protect our cultural heritage.

Lacey Wallace, Brighton, MA

The agreement thus far has had positive effects, such as greater cooperation between the two countries in loaning items for exhibits, and growing police protection for cultural sites and objects within Italy. The restrictions in place have been instrumental in allowing these positive developments, and it is imperative that the U.S. renews this agreement to continue to help Italy protect its cultural heritage. To do otherwise would be a major regression from the last several years’ work and would promote the destruction of cultural knowledge and understanding.

Marni Blake Walter, Westmoreland, NH

I am surprised in a way, to even have to write this letter. Why should we need to discuss whether or not to do the right thing toward Italy or any other nation? It would be yet another sign of America’s moral decline if we fail to honor Italy and help preserve her extraordinary heritage.

Phyllis Halterman, New York, NY

Nel corrente anno 2010 l’accordo Italia-Usa che regola l’importazione di materiale archeologico proveniente dall’Italia scadra’. In vigore dal 2001, questo accordo ha dimostrato l’impegno degli Stati Uniti nella protezione di una parte importante del patrimonio storico-artistico mondiale. Questo gesto di amicizia e buona volonta’ ha anche indotto l’Italia a consentire prestiti a lungo termine di importanti oggetti d’arte a musei ed istituzioni americani; in questo modo il pubblico americano ha avuto l’opportunita’ di apprezzare ancora di più la ricca storia italiana.

Il prossimo 6 maggio 2010 la commissione USA per i beni culturali (CPAC) terra’ un’udienza in cui verra’ deciso se rinnovare questo accordo. La petizione sul sito di SAFE a favore del rinnovo sarà presentata all’udienza come dimostrazione della volonta’ del popolo americano di proteggere questa importante parte del patrimonio culturale mondiale.

Se desideri esprimere una specifica e pertinente opinione in proposito, se credi che la nostra comprensione del passato debba essere protetta dal furto e dall’esportazione illecita, invia questo “link” ai tuoi amici e colleghi, e fai sentire la tua voce inviando un fax (in inglese) entro il 22 Aprile 2010 a:

Cultural Property Advisory Committee
Cultural Heritage Center
US Department of State
E-mail: culprop@state.gov
Fax: (202) 632-6300

INGLESE

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