In 2020, an attorney contacted the FBI Art Crime Team on behalf of an unnamed client who was in possession of a huge “mosaic of the mythological figure Medusa,” the FBI said.
The mosaic had been cut into 16 pieces, each weighing between 75 and 200 pounds, and had been stored individually in pallets kept in a Los Angeles storage unit since the 1980s, according to the FBI.
“The client had no documentation – known in the art world as provenance – so he could not sell the pieces,” the FBI wrote. “Selling art without provenance is like trying to sell a car when you don’t have its title.”
It’s unclear how the anonymous client came into possession of the artwork, or how long it had been in the United States, although the FBI says “it may have been lost for 100 year”.
Two special agents – Elizabeth Rivas and Allen Grove – worked to uncover the origin of the mosaic so that it could be returned to its rightful owners.
Italian police confirmed that the mosaic was Italian and had “been registered in the registers of cultural property in 1909”, the FBI said. “The only modern record of the mosaic’s existence was a 1959 newspaper ad that appeared to show it for sale in the Los Angeles area.”
“The mosaic was handcrafted at a time when people put an incredible amount of care and effort into it. It really speaks to the ingenuity and creativity of the time,” Grove said. “It’s not supposed to be in Los Angeles. The mosaic belongs to the people of Rome. It allows us to understand a little about the history of humans 2,000 years ago.”
Italian officials traveled to Los Angeles to inspect the mosaic and help plan the best way to bring it back to Rome.
To ensure the artifact arrived in Italy undamaged, the anonymous client covered the costs of specialist shipping crates which were then sent through diplomatic channels. The artwork arrived safely in April, the FBI confirmed.
Art experts in Italy are currently cleaning and restoring the mosaic. While some of the storage pallets had been infested with termites, the artwork was “largely intact thanks to the air-conditioned facility in which it had been kept,” the FBI said.
There is an ongoing effort in the United States to repatriate cultural artifacts sold, often illegally, to private collectors or museums.
In 2021, the Met returned three African art objects, including a pair of 16th-century Beninese brass plaques, to Nigeria. The move came after European museums began to face growing pressure to return irreplaceable artefacts looted during the colonial era.