The Illicit Trafficking of Sardinian Cultural Property

By Giuditta Giardini, Consultant, Manhattan District Attorney’s Office (New York, N.Y.)

Statue of bronze archer

Sardinian artifacts

Sardinian artifacts are prized around the world, particularly items from the island’s ancient Nuragic civilization. As the archaeologist and politician Giovanni Lilliu once said, “There are more Sardinian Nuragic bronzes abroad than there are in Sardinia itself.”

The majority of bronzes that left the island of Sardinia in the 1980s and 1990s came from illegal excavations. One example is this bronze archer, which seemed unfindable—until it appeared in the 1991 acquisitions bulletin of the Cleveland Museum of Art. An Italian prosecutor found out from the museum that the piece had entered the collection in the late 1960s; it had been illegally excavated sometime before 1960, on the island of Sant’Antioco (off Sardinia), and then illegally exported.

The find in the museum led to years of diatribes and negotiations, pressure on the museum’s director, and the involvement of Ohio’s attorney general. An agreement was finally negotiated through diplomatic channels in 2009 to permit the return of the piece to Sardinia. The archer is now exhibited in the Ferruccio Barreca Archaeological Museum in Sant’Antioco; it stands as an example of cultural diplomacy at its best.

This bronze archer was illegally excavated at Grutti Acqua, a Nuragic complex located on the Sardinian island of Sant’Antioco.

An organizational chart

In 1994, antiquities dealer Antonio Savoca’s residence in Munich, Germany, was raided; precious vases were discovered, along with written records implicating another man in the trafficking of the vases: Pasquale Camera. Camera had been a captain in the Italian financial police, and when he died in a car accident the following year, the police found incriminating documents in his vehicle, as well as photos of looted antiquities. That material led to seventy additional investigations, including a September 1995 search of the Roman apartment of a man named Danilo Zicchi—which turned up a single page, in Camera’s handwriting, of an organizational chart. The chart illustrated the supply chain for looted antiquities, giving an idea of how trafficking worked in Italy in the 1980s and 1990s. Furthermore, it showed that Sardinia was a major source of looted antiquities for the black market.

Italy boasts some of the world’s oldest laws protecting national antiquities. The safeguarding of Italy’s artistic heritage has been a priority of the Italian government ever since the nation’s unification in 1861. Today, Italian patrimony is protected by a 2004 law known as the Code of Cultural Property and Landscape.

This organizational chart served traffickers and later provided key information for the protectors of Italy's cultural heritage. 

Image: Trafficking Culture
Carthaginian glass head

A Carthaginian glass head

Just recently, in December 2021, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office returned several items to Italy, among them a Phoenician glass pendant in the shape of a head. This head is now displayed at the headquarters of the art-crimes task force of the police (officially, the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Property or Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale [TPC]). An antiquities dealer and trafficker based in Rome, Edoardo Almagià, had sold the pendant to the Cleveland Museum of Art around 1993.  

This Carthaginian glass head was held by the Cleveland Museum of Art and is now on exhibit in Rome.

Phoenician glass necklace

A Phoenician necklace

The Phoenician glass pendant above is very similar to the little glass heads, dated 400–300 BCE, that decorate this Phoenician necklace found in 1937 during the excavation of the necropolis of Funtana Noa near present-day Olbia, on the northeastern coast of Sardinia.

This Phoenician glass necklace was found in Sardinia.