Eagle-eyed archaeologists at an Italian lab first realized something might be awry when they noticed a strange item crop up in a European exhibition catalog. As the Associated Press (AP) reports, the image of a limestone stele, or funerary slab dating to pre-Roman times, looked suspiciously similar to another fragment held in a local museum in Puglia, a region in Italy’s southeastern tip.
Italian law forbids the export of cultural heritage items excavated in the country. If the stele was transported out of Italy for the exhibition, which traveled to Geneva and Paris, the move likely took place illicitly.
Authorities launched an investigation into the stele in 2017. The inquiry soon snowballed into a much larger project than anticipated.
Four years later, the Italian Carabinieri has finally recovered the stele and returned it to its country of origin. In addition to the slab, the team uncovered 781 ancient Apulian artifacts and pieces of pottery, all of which have now been sent back to Italy. Dated to between 600 B.C. and 300 B.C., the trove of treasures’ estimated value is $13 million (€11 million), according to a statement from Eurojust, the organization that facilitated international police communication during the investigation.
Per Agence France-Presse (AFP), authorities found the almost 800 artifacts—described as “of exceptional rarity and inestimable value”—in the home of a wealthy Belgian art collector. Ian Mundell of the Art Newspaper notes that the hoard included vases painted with red figures typical of the Puglia region, black glazed ceramics and terracotta figurines.
All of these objects had been illegally excavated from Apulia and likely belonged to the Daunian culture, an early Iron Age civilization that lived in the region. Video footage from the collector’s Antwerp residence shows glass cases filled with rows upon rows of stolen vases, pottery and other items.
The stele proved particularly helpful to investigators. It bore distinctive decorative features specific to the area of Salapia, a Roman port and town located on the Adriatic coast that was likely founded sometime in the first century B.C.
Crucially, the stolen funerary object was also missing a piece of its center. When authorities placed the fragment from the Puglia museum next to the stolen work, they realized that it completed a decorative motif of a shield and warrior on horseback—all but confirming that the two pieces belonged to the same work, per AFP.
According to the AP, the collector made multiple appeals asking to keep the works but was ultimately denied by Belgian courts.
Also present in the haul were a number of amphorae, reports Caroline Goldstein for Artnet News. In Roman and pre-Roman cultures from classical antiquity, ancient residents of coastal towns often used these jars to store wine or garum, a sauce made from fish guts, herbs and salt. (Last year, police discovered and seized 13 such 2,000-year-old jars from a frozen food vendor in Alicante, Spain.)
More recently, Italian police restored another piece of national heritage to its former home: six fragments of elegant frescoes. Three of the works were stolen from ancient towns near Pompeii Archaeological Park and trafficked to collectors in the United States, Switzerland and England, while the rest were pilfered from an illegal dig site near Civita Giuliana in 2012.
As the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida reported at the time, General Roberto Riccardi, head of Italy’s cultural heritage protection squad, celebrated the return of the frescoes at a ceremony in May, declaring, “Ancient works of great value are returning to their rightful place.”