A Mosaic From Caligula’s ‘Pleasure Boat’ Spent 45 Years as a Coffee Table in NYC

Authorities returned the ancient artwork, now on view at a museum near Rome, to Italy following a multi-year investigation

Close-up shot of the mosaic
Art dealer Helen Fioratti and her husband, Nereo, purchased the mosaic from an aristocratic Italian family in the 1960s and used it as a coffee table in their Manhattan apartment for some 45 years. Photo by Ernesto Ruscio / Getty Images

In 2013, Dario Del Bufalo, an Italian expert on ancient marble and stone, was signing copies of his book Porphyry in New York when he overheard a shocking conversation. Two people paging through the volume had spotted a photo of a Roman mosaic that disappeared toward the end of World War II. Suddenly, one of them exclaimed, “Oh, Helen, look, that’s your mosaic.”

Once part of the dance floor on one of Roman Emperor Caligula’s pleasure ships, the marble masterpiece was recovered from the depths of Lake Nemi in the 1930s, only to vanish the following decade. Art dealer Helen Fioratti and her husband, Nereo, purchased the mosaic from an aristocratic Italian family in the 1960s and used it as a coffee table in their Manhattan apartment for some 45 years. Now, reports Anderson Cooper for CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” the priceless artifact is back in Italy, where it recently went on display at the Museum of Roman Ships in Nemi.

In a clip from “60 Minutes Overtime,” Del Bufalo describes the discovery as a “one in one million” event. After encountering Fioratti and her friend at the book signing, the scholar reported the incident to authorities, who seized the mosaic in October 2017 and returned it to the Italian government.

“I felt very sorry for [Fioratti], but I couldn’t do anything different, knowing that my museum in Nemi is missing the best part that went through the centuries, through the war, through a fire, and then through an Italian art dealer, and finally could go back to the museum,” Del Bufalo tells “60 Minutes.” “That’s the only thing I felt I should have done.”

The Fiorattis bought the mosaic “in good faith” as part of a sale brokered by an Italian police official known for his success in recovering Nazi-looted artwork, wrote James C. McKinley Jr. for the New York Times in 2017. Authorities never prosecuted the couple, who, in turn, declined to fight back against the seizure despite believing they had a legitimate claim to the artifact.

Speaking with Colleen Long and Verena Dobnik of the Associated Press (AP) in 2017, Fioratti characterized the sale as “an innocent purchase.”

“We were very happy with it,” she added. “We loved it. We had it for years and years, and people always complimented us on it.”

A ruler known for his violent inclinations and love of over-the-top amusements, Caligula commissioned the mosaic for one of his lavish party boats. As Paul Cooper reported for Discover magazine in 2018, the massive barges featured gardens, baths and galleries that served as backdrops for the emperor’s decadent floating parties on Lake Nemi, about 19 miles southeast of Rome. The largest ship measured 240 feet long—roughly the same as an Airbus A380 plane.

Pleasure Boat
Workers recovered two of Caligula's pleasure barges in the early 1930s. The wrecks were later destroyed by a 1944 fire. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

“The mosaic testifies how important and luxurious these imperial ships were,” Nemi Mayor Alberto Bertucci told the AP’s Paolo Santalucia and Nicole Winfield in March, when the artwork was unveiled at the Museum of Roman Ships. “These [boats] were like buildings: They were not supposed to sail and they confirm the greatness of this emperor who wanted to show the greatness of his rule of the Roman empire through these ships.”

After Caligula’s assassination in 41 C.E., the vessels were likely sunk to erase any traces of his brutal reign. They remained hidden underwater until the late 1920s, when Italian dictator Benito Mussolini had the lake drained. Over the next several years, workers recovered two enormous wrecks, as well as artifacts including the mosaic. Per the New York Times, a May 1944 fire destroyed the museum built to display the finds, all but reducing the emperor’s treasured ships to ash.

Manhattan prosecutors suspect that the mosaic, which shows no signs of fire damage, was either removed from the museum prior to the blaze or never publicly exhibited, instead remaining privately owned following its excavation. Investigators have not yet determined when or how the artwork was acquired by the Italian family that sold it to the Fiorattis.