At least 45 boxes filled with archaeological treasures have been returned to Italy after they were hidden in a Geneva warehouse by a disgraced British art dealer, Swiss authorities said.
Swiss investigators suspect that tomb robbers illegally dug up most of these antiquities at ancient cemeteries in central Italy's Umbria and Lazio regions, where the Etruscan civilization thrived 2,500 years ago before the rise of Rome.
The Etruscans are particularly famous for producing beautiful sarcophagi, or coffins, carved with reclining life-size human figures. The Italian Carabinieri Art Squad first came to Swiss authorities in March 2014 with information about one of these sarcophagi that might have been stolen during an illegal excavation and deposited in Geneva's Ports Francs, or Free Ports, the Geneva Public Prosecutor's Office said in a statement last month.
A search, led by Claudio Mascotto of the Public Prosecutor's Office, brought authorities to a warehouse, where they found not one but two of these terra-cotta sarcophagi among dozens of other artifacts, including bas-reliefs, painted vases, frescos, statue heads, busts and other votive or religious pieces. [See Photos of the Stolen Archaeological Treasures]
The objects, which were officially handed over to Italy in mid-January, were to be unveiled in Rome this week, the U.K.'s Telegraph reported.
Because Swiss authorities don't publicly disclose the names of the parties in such legal proceedings, the statement only revealed that these objects were deposited in the warehouse space by "a former high-profile British art dealer, whose name has been linked in the past to the trading of several looted antiquities throughout the world." Many media outlets were quick to link that description to Robin Symes, a dealer accused of selling illicit Italian antiquities to Western art institutions, such as the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which has been forced to return many of these objects.
Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist and researcher who studies the illicit antiquities trade at the University of Glasgow's Trafficking Culture project, said he actually recognized some of the Etruscan antiquities when the Swiss authorities published photos of the trove.
Tsirogiannis has access to a photo archive that was confiscated by authorities from Giacomo Medici, a notorious Italian dealer who was convicted for antiquities trafficking in 2004 and was one of Symes’ suppliers. (Symes and Medicis involvement in the black market for antiquities was documented in Peter Watson and Cecilia Todeschini's 2006 book "The Medici Conspiracy," published by PublicAffairs.)
Tsirogiannis showed Live Science photos of the heads from the two Etruscan sarcophagi in separate images from the Medici archive. He noted that the photos released by the Swiss authorities shows these heads attached to the two sarcophagi, as if they had never been broken.
"I am not aware if the Carabinieri made the match, or whether they are repatriating the sarcophagi just because they are Etruscan and found in the Geneva warehouses of Symes," Tsirogiannis said.
The 1973 UNESCO Convention made it illegal to import, export or transfer ownership of cultural property. Switzerland signed this agreement in 2003, and this case is not the first time the nation has acted on that convention to return illegal antiquities to other countries. Henri Della Casa, a spokesman for Geneva judicial authorities, said antiquities found in the Geneva Free Ports were returned to Turkey last year and that other cultural property investigations are ongoing.
"The public prosecutor is very happy with the conclusion of these proceedings and is very satisfied to have handed back these remains to Italy," Della Casa said.
The Geneva Free Ports have become popular storage spaces among art collectors because of the high security and lack of taxes and duties. The Italian antiquities in the latest case had been stored there for more than 15 years, and they were registered under the name of an offshore company, Swiss authorities said.
But Artnet News reported that changes in regulations for the Free Ports that went into effect this year should make it more difficult to hide illicit antiquities in Swiss warehouses. Some of these changes include a six-month cap on the storage of objects intended for export and a new requirement to disclose the contents of crates moving in and out of the duty-free warehouses.
Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now
Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.