Italy is celebrating the return of 266 antiquities from the United States, including Etruscan vases and ancient Roman coins and mosaics worth tens of millions of euro that were looted and sold to American museums and private collectors.

The returned items include artefacts recently seized in New York from a storage unit belonging to British antiquities dealer Robin Symes, officials said.

In addition, the haul that arrived in Rome included 65 objects that had been offered by a collector to Houston’s Menil Collection, but were declined.

Italy Antiquities Returned
The artefacts were displayed during a handing over ceremony at the offices of the Manhattan district attorney (Italian Carabinieri Via AP)

The art unit of Italy’s carabinieri paramilitary police said the owner of the collection “spontaneously” gave back the items after investigators determined they had come from clandestine excavations of archaeological sites, according to a carabinieri statement.

While the carabinieri said the works had been part of the Menil Collection, the museum said they never were. The museum said a collector approached the museum in 2022 about making a gift of the artefacts, but the museum curator directed the collector to the Italian culture minister, “who alerted the museum that Italy was claiming the objects”.

“The Menil Collection declined these works from the collector and they have never been part of the museum’s collection,” spokesperson Tommy Napier said.

Italy has been on a decades-long campaign to hunt down antiquities that were looted by “tombaroli”, or tomb raiders, and then sold to private collectors and museums in the US and beyond. The looting operations involved art dealers who sold the items directly or via auctions.

Looted antiquities
The haul included Etruscan vases and ancient Roman coins and mosaics worth tens of millions of euro (Italian Carabinieri Via AP)

Some of the items were handed over to Italian authorities on Tuesday at the offices of the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg.

Mr Bragg’s office said they included an Apulian krater, or vase, dating from 335 BC that was seized in July from a private collection in New York.

The vase had been photographed and included in the famous Polaroid “archive” of dealer Giacomo Medici, who passed it onto Mr Symes, who then “laundered the piece through Sotheby’s London”, Mr Bragg’s office alleged.

Other items included two Etruscan tile paintings from Cerveteri, a frequently-looted necropolis site north-west of Rome, that date back to 440 BC.

According to Mr Bragg’s office, the tiles were looted in the 1980s and ended up with Mr Symes, who sold them to noted New York collectors Shelby White and Leon Levy in 1992 for 1.6 million dollars (£1.25 million).

Looted antiquities
The artefacts were looted from Italian soil and sold to US museums and private collectors (Italian Carabinieri Via AP)

The couple returned the tiles to Mr Symes before 1999 “after questions about their illicit origins were raised by multiple scholars”, the statement said.

The objects remained in Mr Symes’ New York storage unit until they were seized in March, the statement said.

The Italian police art squad said the value of all 266 pieces, on the open market, would come to tens of millions of euro.

The Symes items are in addition to 750 pieces that were in the possession of Mr Symes’ London company, Symes Ltd, which is being liquidated, and Italy put on display on May 31.

In May, before Italy reclaimed the initial trove of 750 objects, Mr Symes’ lawyers, Antonella Anselmo and Giuliano Lemme, said the return was the result of an agreement between the British dealer and the Italian culture ministry following “years of complex negotiations and legal proceedings”.

“Under the agreement, hundreds of archaeological finds of great cultural value, which are assumed to have been illegally exported, will return to Italy, where they will be destined for public use,” the lawyers said on May 11.

The deal also allowed Mr Symes to use proceeds from the sale of some items to satisfy creditors.