New York art dealer Helen Fioratti unknowingly used an ancient Roman mosaic as a coffee table.
Italian stone expert Dario Del Bufalo said Fioratti saw the mosaic in his book and said she owned it.
The mosaic was commissioned by the Roman emperor Caligula for one of his large party ships.
A geometric mosaic from one of the lavish party ships of the Roman emperor Caligula was used by an art dealer in New York as a coffee table in her Park Avenue residence, The Guardian reported.
In 2013, Dario Del Bufalo, an Italian expert in ancient marble and stone, signed copies of his book, “Porphyry,” documenting ancient and modern works of art using the reddish-purple stone the book is named after, including a photo of a for longest lost Italian mosaic.
“There was a lady with a young guy with a strange hat who came to the table and he said to her, ‘What a beautiful book. Oh, Helen, look, that’s your mosaic.’ And she said, ‘Yes, that’s my mosaic,’ “Del Bufalo told” 60 Minutes “correspondent Anderson Cooper.
Del Bufalo found the young man, who confirmed that New York City art dealer and gallery owner Helen Fioratti and her husband bought the mosaic from an Italian family in the 1960s and turned it into a coffee table, according to The Guardian.
Dozens of centuries earlier, the mosaic had been part of an inlaid floor on one of the party ships ordered by Caligula before his assassination, CBS News reported. Cooper told of Caligula’s four-year reign and quoted scientific reports that he was brutal, cruel, and perhaps insane.
Many artifacts, statues and images of Caligula were destroyed after his death, according to Cooper and Del Bufalo, including the sinking of his ships in Lake Nemi, a small volcanic lake southeast of Rome.
In the 1930s, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini ordered Lake Nemi to be drained so that the party ships and the artifacts they contained could be recovered and placed in a museum by the lake, CBS News reported. However, Nazi troops burned the archaeological treasures when they withdrew from Italy in 1944, according to The Guardian.
Del Bufalo told Cooper that the lack of fire damage suggests the mosaic was either sneaked out of the museum before the fire or in a private collection after the extraction from Lake Nemi, CBS News reported.
Shortly after Del Bufalo discovered the mosaic was in Fioratti’s possession, prosecutors at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office spent years searching for evidence in support of a charge of possession of stolen property, according to The New York Times. They concluded that the mosaic had been stolen from the Nemi Museum, seized it and returned it to the Italian government in 2017, the Times reported.
After his return, the mosaic was exhibited at the Museum of Roman Ships in Nemi, Italy, the Associated Press reported.
Still, Del Bufalo said he sympathizes with Fioratti’s loss of her coffee table and offered to make her a copy.
“I really wanted to make a copy for her,” Del Bufalo told Cooper. “Exact copy. She would not know the difference.”
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