Stolen Roman frescoes returned to Pompeii after investigation

By Angela Giuffrida in Rome
A fragment of a fresco depicting a female figure and lyre that was stolen from a Roman Villa near Pompeii
Six frescoes hacked off from the ruins of ancient Roman villas years ago have been returned to the Pompeii archaeological park. Photograph: Parco Archeologico di Pompei press office/AFP PHOTO

Six fragments of wall frescoes stolen from the ruins of ancient Roman villas have been returned to Pompeii’s archaeological park, after an investigation by Italy’s cultural protection police squad.

Three of the relics, which date back to the first century AD, are believed to have been cut off the walls of two Roman villas in Stabiae, a historical site close to the main Pompeii excavations, in the 1970s before being exported illegally.

One of the frescoes features a female dancer carrying a tray, the other a cherub playing a flute and the third the head of a woman.

Police found the relics during a broader investigation into the illicit trafficking of archaeological objects in 2020 and discovered that they had been bought by American, Swiss and English antique dealers in the 1990s.

The other three frescoes had come from a villa in Civita Giuliana, about 700 metres north-west of Pompeii’s archaeological park, and were found by police at the site in 2012 after they foiled an illegal dig. The villa in Civita Giuliana was where the remains of two victims of the AD79 eruption of Mount Vesuvius were found last year. Excavations on the villa began in 2017, but before then thieves had been able to tunnel into the site to steal relics.

One of the recovered fragments.
One of the recovered fragments. Photograph: Parco Archeologico di Pompei pre/AFP/Getty Images

“Ancient works of great value are returning to their rightful place,” said Gen Roberto Riccardi, the head of Italy’s cultural heritage protection squad.

Gabriel Zuchtriegel, who took over as director of Pompeii’s archaeological park in February, replacing Massimo Osanna, who is now director-general of museums at the Italian culture ministry, said: “Collaboration with the authorities to combat illegal excavations and the illicit trafficking of archaeological finds, which began under Massimo Osanna, will be the ‘best practice’ that the park follows in the future.”