SWANSEA, Wales Aug. 21 /PRNewswire/ — David Gill, archaeologist, reflects on the return of classical sculptures that were stolen from the Butrint Museum in Albania.
In May 2009 a marble head of Asklepios, the classical god of healing, was returned to Albania. It had been excavated near to the entrance of the theatre of Butrint by an Italian team under Luigi Maria Ugolini in 1932. Butrint was a Greek foundation and its historical importance has been recognized by its designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Italian police had seized the Asklepios in 2005 from a private collector in Rome. The reason for the raid was that the head had been stolen with other pieces from the Butrint Museum in April 1991. The sculpture then surfaced at in a London auction-house in July 1996. The identity of the person who consigned the lot has not been disclosed though details of the transaction are said to have been passed to the Italian authorities.
The head was in effect ransomed by two Albanian footballers — one is the brother of Auron Tare, the co-founder of the Butrint National Park — who offered 20,000 euros (the sum paid by the Rome collector). Such action avoided a potentially lengthy and expensive legal fight to reclaim the sculpture.
This was not the only piece to be returned to Albania. In 2000 a marble portrait of Livia, the wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, was returned by the antiquities dealer Robert Hecht. Butrint was the site of a Roman colony and several Augustan portrait sculptures have been found in the excavations. Like Asklepios, the head of Livia had been stolen in 1991. The portrait apparently passed through Switzerland and then into the hands of Hecht. It featured as part of an exhibition of antiquities From a North American Collection of Ancient Art (c. 1995) said to have been formed ‘over the last forty years’. Livia was offered to a museum in Germany but the curatorial staff realized that the piece had been stolen.
The papers relating to the Livia portrait found their way to Albania; in 1998 they were seen by Auron Tare. A subsequent meeting with Hecht in Paris led to the dealer agreeing to return the head to Albania.
Further sculptures stolen from Butrint have been recovered in Greece; others are still missing. Where are they? Who has handled them?