Skip to main content

6 Remarkable Stories of Stolen Artifacts That Were Recovered

Some ancient artifacts have had interesting journeys through the centuries.

Some ancient artifacts have had interesting journeys through the centuries.

1. The Ptahmose Carving

That the Nazis stole art during WWII is well documented. A lesser-known fact is that German museums were also looted. During the war, many were bombed and artifacts disappeared. Some went into the hands of Soviet soldiers and undoubtedly unscrupulous German dealers also had sticky fingers. One artifact was an ancient Egyptian carving that belonged to Berlin's Neues Museum. The institution had acquired it legally, in 1910, from England. Dating to the 13th century B.C., the fragment had a vibrant turquoise glaze and showed a mayor of Memphis called Ptahmose. During the chaos of the war, the stone disappeared.

In 2017, a scholar from the Netherlands found a fresh photo of the missing carving. It was at the Kelsey Museum in Michigan. Strangely, the museum's records showed that the item was donated by Samuel Goudsmit. He was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project as well as a secret investigation into the scientific progress of the enemy during WWII. Goudsmit received the artifact in 1945, from a German collector. After being lost for 70 years, the Ptahmose carving was returned to Neues Museum and put on permanent display.

This vase is an exceptional example of the ancient master Euphronios' work.

This vase is an exceptional example of the ancient master Euphronios' work.

2. The Euphronios Krater

A less graceful exchange between two museums involved the Euphronios krater. In 1972, the vase suddenly appeared at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Since it was 2,500 years old and clearly made by the Italian master Euphronios, Italy grew suspicious.

What started as a query about the circumstances under which the Met had acquired it, grew into a three-decade fight for ownership. The Italian government had reason to believe the vase was a looted artifact. Decorated with scenes from Homer’s “Iliad”, the krater resembled Euphronios' finest work. Indeed, an investigation traced the artifact to a tomb near Cerveteri. This was the same region where most of Euphronios' kraters were recovered in the past. Soon, it was also revealed that the Met vase was stolen by grave robbers in 1971. It crossed the border thanks to a known Italian antiquities thief, who passed it on to an American dealer.

In 2008, the Met reluctantly released the vase. The hesitation was understandable; the black-and-red artwork is one of only a few remaining kraters. When it arrived back in Rome, it was not alone. The Met had also turned over 20 other artifacts that were rightfully the property of Italy.

3. Piece of a Floating Palace

For decades, guests of Helen and Nereo Fioratti put their cups down on a quaint coffee table. The New York couple's nightmare began in 2013 when an Italian expert arrived in the city. During a talk, attended by art historians and dealers, he showed the image of an ancient floor fragment. Helen Fioratti was also an antiquities dealer and some of the lecture's crowd had been to her apartment. It did not take long for somebody to recognize that Fioratti's coffee table was a 2,000-year-old remnant stolen from an Italian museum.

Missing since before WWII, it was once part of the floor installed in a floating palace. Roman Emperor Caligula used luxurious ships to throw parties that lasted for days. The Fioratti piece matched the age and mosaic flooring of the vessels, which were recovered from a lake near Rome in the 1930s. The couple claimed they bought it in good faith from an aristocratic family who used an Italian police official as the middle man. They turned the mosaic into a coffee table and used it for 45 years. It was confiscated in 2017 and returned to its home country.

4. The Patterson Collection

During his lifetime Leonardo Patterson amassed a vast collection of South American artifacts. Over a thousand items represented the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations. In 1997, the remarkable cache went on display in Spain. The only problem was that Patterson was a dodgy dealer under investigation for trafficking. He stored the stash in Spain until 2008 when its government got a whiff of the wrongful ownership and handed hundreds of pieces over to Peru. Patterson hauled the rest off to Germany only to have everything confiscated in Munich.

In particular, two Olmec statues ended the collector's career. Despite claiming that he bought it legally in Europe, Patterson had no proof. Mexico, on the other hand, provided solid evidence that the 3,000-year-old statues had been stolen from an archaeological site in Veracruz. A court witness provided testimony that Patterson told him he'd purchased the wooden carvings, despite knowing that a tomb raider was involved. The statues were welcomed back to Mexico in 2018. Despite causing an international hunt for the collection that lasted years—and being found guilty of possessing stolen artifacts and selling fakes—Patterson was only placed under house arrest due to being in his 70s.

5. Dramatic Rescue at Amenemhat

The revolution of 2011 made Egypt a dangerous place. Convicts escaped and terrorized civilians but also looted archaeological sites. In January, two groups of looters unearthed a pair of massive limestone blocks. Found next to the Pyramid of Amenemhat I, both bore hieroglyphs and other carvings. After an argument broke out about which group should have them, one side decided to report the findings, in hope of a reward.

Three archaeologists responded, including the general director at the Ministry of Antiquities. They took a pair of unarmed guards with them and entered a very dangerous situation. First, they lied to their thieving guide by promising to get him a reward, which is not allowed under Egyptian law. Additionally, after arriving at the pyramid, they realized the second group of looters was waiting to ambush them should they leave with the blocks. The rescue team quietly obtained another truck and loaded the two slabs. Their own vehicle was left in full view to fool the looters into thinking the artifacts were still being excavated. The ruse worked and the archaeologists escaped. One block is 4,000 years old and shows pharaoh Amenemhat I suckling a goddess. The other slab shows a group of mysterious foreigners who might be Libyans and it's likely the older artifact.

One of over 400 Sumerian tablets recovered during the Hobby Lobby scandal - and they hail from a lost city.

One of over 400 Sumerian tablets recovered during the Hobby Lobby scandal - and they hail from a lost city.

6. Tablets From a Missing City

When U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement recently confiscated thousands of looted artifacts from Hobby Lobby, they found something remarkable. Hundreds of Sumerian tablets originated from a mysterious city called Irisagrig. Used to write spells, legal texts, and records, the cuneiform tablets were created between 2100 B.C. - 1600 B.C. The name Irisagrig was already known before this discovery. For the past few years, experts noticed that other tablets from the lost city surfaced in antique shops. Most likely also stolen from Iraq, which was the case of the Hobby Lobby tablets, the slabs could offer unique insights into a city that has never been found. Any physical trace—especially those written by Irisagrig citizens—can point in the city's direction. For the time being, it's unclear where the looters are mining the precious texts. Ironically, that information could prove to be the most powerful clue of them all. In May 2018, the tablets were returned to the Iraq Museum.

© 2018 Jana Louise Smit