Italy: Excess Art to Colossal Naples Museum – Carabinieri Revel in Seizure of 105,000 Artifacts

Felix Nussbaum, Portrait of a carabiniere, c.1933, public domain.

Two news items from Italy show how intensely focused Italy’s government is today on adding new cultural institutions and on enforcing claims to objects of Italian origin held by foreign museums and collectors. They also raise questions. Will a new megamuseum in Naples enable Italy’s Ministry of Culture to focus more on preserving what it already possesses? Given the challenges Italy already faces in caring for what it already has, is seizing over 100,000 objects a year a public priority? Should international cultural policy  be reduced to a schoolyard taunt, “That’s mine, give it back!”

A Megamuseum for Naples

Bird’s eye view of the Real Albergo dei Poveri. Wikimedia Commons.

The Real Albergo dei Poveri, also known as the Palazzo Fuga, is Europe’s second largest historic public building – a massive if dilapidated example of Baroque Neapolitan architecture. that was used to house Naples poor and as an asylum and hospice for centuries. At one time, it was a prison. For years, however, the building has been derelict and abandoned. A far-reaching restoration plan will allow the Plazzao Fuga to supplement the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, or MANN. MANN’s collections comprise the largest collection of classical archaeological material in the world. In particular, the new space will allow display of the MANN’s 18th century collection of Pompeiian antiquities of Francesco Santangelo, a Neapolitan aristocrat. The Santangelo collection came to the MANN in 1865, but the museum has never had the exhibition space to display its riches. The reconstruction plan will create seven new museum exhibition spaces totaling 8,000 m2, enabling public access to thousands of artifacts from Pompei that have been locked away for decades – seen only when loaned to foreign museums. New rooms will be dedicated to digital projections of the volcanic eruptions, of the early, the 18th century Herculaneum excavations, and even of looting on the sites.

Other uses for the Palazzo Fuga complex are planned. Naples’s Federico II University will take over half the complex for classrooms and student dormitories. The Palazzo Fuga will also house a new Naples National Library.

The Real Albergo dei Poveri was built outside of Naples by Carlo III, the Bourbon King of Naples and Sicily, starting in 1752. The King’s goal was to provide housing – and a workhouse – for Naples’ estimated 8,000 destitute citizens. Carlo’s plan involved a complete reconstruction of the social network for the poor: families were broken up and men, women, children, and the elderly were to be housed different sections of a giant complex. Workhouses and factories to employ the residents were included in the massive project. A church was also planned but never built as the project was largely abandoned seventy years after its construction. A section of the enormous building also partially collapsed in an 1980s earthquake.

Side View of construction at a building at the Real Albergo dei Poveri. Courtesy World Monuments Fund.

Italy’s government has budgeted €174 million for the renovation of the building. Some see the project, to which the World Monuments Fund and the EU have already contributed significantly, as intended primarily to enhance tourism to Naples. Others have commented that the new museum, known as MANN2, fulfills a personal vision of Italy’s Minister of Culture, Gennaro Sangiuliano, a Neapolitan. Some in Naples are concerned about the cost of government support for the project and additional costs and problems resulting from displacement of less affluent Naples’ residents living in the area of the new museum. When the Real Albergo dei Poveri was originally built, it was outside of the city, but Naples has grown around it over the centuries. The president of the Naples section of the Italia Nostra heritage organization has suggested making entrance to the museum free for locals – which may not be sufficient to make up for raised rents and other practical inconveniences.

Funding issues and neglect as a result of poor past administration at MANN have raised additional concerns. Naples is currently experiencing an explosion of new projects under Italy’s new Cultural Minister. Other renovation and building projects for Naples’ cultural infrastructure include installation of solar panels on the roof of the Capodimonte museum, half paid for by Italian corporations, €1.5m for improving accessibility for disabled people to the Cloister of Oranges and €7m for renovating the Pinacoteca art museum and other aging buildings.

Latest Report of the Comando Carabinieri per le Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale

Italy’s Comando Carabinieri per le Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale (Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Command), informally known the “Art Squad,” are famous worldwide for their law enforcement work in ‘heritage protection’ at home and internationally. The Carabinieri are primarily known inside Italy for their role in halting illicit excavations and thefts from churches and other institutions, and especially for stopping their traditional opponents, Italy’s grave robbers or tombaleros, from despoiling archaeological sites. While cultural policing was given little attention during much of the twentieth century, it radically expanded in scale and importance over the last twenty-five years. Internationally, over the last three decades, the Carabinieri have become famous for their aggressive pursuit of objects that left Italy for foreign private collections and museums during times when patrimony laws were disregarded, thirty, fifty and even one hundred years before.

Two life-size Etruscan sarcophagi discovered hidden in a repository in Geneva and that were previously owned by British art dealer Robin Symes, From exhibit L’Arma per l’Arte e la Legalita , Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0.

The Carabinieri’s Cultural Heritage Protection Command is a specialized unit, established in 1969 to uphold Article 9 of the Constitution of the Italian Republic. Article 9 states that, “The Republic promotes the development of culture and scientific and technical research. It safeguards natural landscapes and the historic and artistic patrimony of the Nation.”

The Carabinieri’s most recent activities were documented in a report issued in mid-June 2024 summarizing its achievements in 2023. Art and heritage-related operations were conducted by the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Command in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, involving 16 regional Units and a Section across the whole of Italy, all coordinated by the Carabinieri’s Rome and Monza groups.

Since 1969, a special unit of the Carabinieri has returned more than three million cultural goods “to their rightful owners” (in most cases, to the Italian state). The vast majority have been seized since 2008. The “Operational Activity 2023” report highlights 105,474 “cultural assets” recovered in just the last year. The report shows a moderate decrease in cultural property crimes and a huge increase in recovered archaeological, book/archival, numismatic, and art objects. There have been more arrests, indictments, and referrals for illegal activities, along with increased online monitoring and international collaborations.

The number of items ‘recovered’ in 2023 represented a three-to-four-fold increase from 2022. They included 67,963 archaeological finds (increased from 17,275), 24,445 books and archival records (increased from 8,653), 10,273 paleontological artifacts, 286 numismatic goods (up from 48), 1,102 works of graphic art/painting and mosaic objects (up from 328), and 369 sculptures. A significant number of domestic investigations covered counterfeiting, which is more prevalent in the modern art market than in crimes involving antiquities and archaeological goods. Over a hundred people were referred to prosecutors, a third more than 2022, and 1,936 counterfeit works were seized, more than twice the number seized in 2022.

There was no explanation why a €45 million value was given for counterfeit items (what they might have been worth if they were real?), representing one-fifth of the €260 million total, was included in the “recovered art” values.

Online Monitoring and Technological Advances

The massive increase in seizures is primarily due to the Carabinieri’s use of AI, artificial intelligence, to monitor a database of websites, auction houses and public sales of artworks, named the Stolen Works of Art Detection System (S.W.O.A.D.S) which contains more than 1,300,000 files. The system collects data and images from the web, deep web, and social media. It monitored 984 websites in 2023, leveraging AI to match objects to inventories and police records. The AI monitoring led to recoveries of 31,689 objects, five times those in previous years. Over eighteen thousand of these were books or materials from archives, 10,000 were coins, 536 were archaeological artifacts. Sixty missing sculptures and 147 paintings were identified. One hundred and one people were referred to prosecutors as a result of the AI object-matching investigation.

The Art Squad also significantly increased its online and in-person checks at antiques establishments, markets, and art fairs. The report states that the Art Squad carried out 1,957 checks at antiques establishments and made 624 checks at markets and fairs.

Collaboration with New York District Attorney’s Office

The Amphitheatre of Santa Maria Capua Vetere, photo Dom De Felice e Carla Nunziata, CCA-SA 3.0 Unported license.

The seizures and voluntary repatriation of the most valuable artworks by the Carabinieri is derived from its claims against art held for decades in museums and private collections, not from recent thefts or archeological depredation. The majority of valuable artworks claimed have come through cooperation with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and Assistant DA Matthew Bogdanos’ Antiquities Trafficking Unit (ATU). U.S. Homeland Security Investigations and Immigration and Customs Enforcement support foreign nation’s partnerships with the ATU.  Collaboration with federal agencies extends the Manhattan DA’s jurisdiction by enabling delivery of ‘turnover’ claims obtained by the ATU from New York judges under a New York pawnbroker’s law. Without identifying the years during which Italian artworks were recovered, the 2023 report states that 1,093 high-value works of art have been returned to Italy through these partnerships.

The 2023 report noted that among the repatriated items from NY was a marble head of Emperor Septimius Severus, stolen in 1985 by armed robbers from the Antiquarium of the Campanian amphitheater Santa Maria Capua Vetere, and found thirty five years later at a Christie’s action in 2019. One of the largest number of items returned to Italy was a collection of some 200 antiquities seized from Fordham University in 2021, which were donated by a NY collector who was a former federal prosecutor, responsible for cleaning up the Mafia from the New York waterfront.

Protection of Landscapes and Monuments

With respect to illicit digging and monument protection, the Art Squad “conducted 1,991 monitoring services.” They detained 280 individuals for crimes related to “landscape protection.” No numbers were given for resulting prosecutions or convictions.

2023 Special Operations

Roman sculptural group of Mithras slaying the bull recovered by the Carabinieri art theft squad in 2014, the sculpture dates from the 3rd century AD, August 9, 2016, Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0.

The report highlights two law enforcement actions that it describes as major operations. In the first, the “Cales” project, led by the Carabinieri TPC Unit in Naples, two individuals were caught in the act during clandestine excavations in which they illegally acquired archaeological goods. Another individual involved with them was caught at the Swiss border attempting to smuggle objects out of Italy. The goods recovered included more than 1,700 coins. Fifteen metal detectors used to search for metal artifacts were also seized.

The Bari TPC Unit and Trani Public Prosecutor’s Office conducted the second operation, codenamed “Canusium.” It went after a group of organized criminals engaged in clandestine excavation, theft, fencing and illegal export of archaeological and numismatic artifacts. Over 3,586 archaeological, numismatic and ceramic goods of inestimable historical, artistic and commercial value were found and seized in various regions of Italy. Fifty-one people thought to be associated with this group were investigated and eventually, “twenty-one restraining orders” were issued. “Restraining orders”? In other words, there was no serious criminal prosecution.


The 2023 report describes the eighth and most recent Operation PANDORA, a multi-country border control police action for which the results have historically been ludicrously small given the funds and manhours expended by law enforcement. The 2023 PANDORA was led by Spain. For all its involvement of thousands of coordinated searches, PANDORA operations have typically captured very minor or essentially worthless trinkets brought across borders by tourists – or WWII period bullets and military equipment from countries where metal detecting is illegal. In the latest iteration 107 items seized, including 87 ceramics, 5 coins/medals, 2 documents/books, and 13 paintings. A demonstration of how useless PANDORA actually is, the report states that there were 1,462 “suspicious” items which were not seized, including 11 carpets, 34 ceramics, 2 documents/books, 100 drawings, 120 pieces of furniture, 65 icons, 3 mosaics, 940 paintings, 4 prints, 55 religious objects, 115 statues/sculptures, and 13 other miscellaneous items.

Together, the decade of repeated pointless PANDORA operations – none of which have found objects of artistic or financial value – and the Special Operations seem both ineffective and dwarfed by the Carabinieri’s use of AI to generate foreign claims that have nothing to do with current threats to Italy’s heritage – and which will only add objects to its already gargantuan national inventory.

Rescue work in Italian flood and earthquakes

We do not wish to neglect a very positive aspect of the Carabinieri’s cultural work that was given little attention in the report. The Carabinieri’s associated “Blue Helmets of Culture” task force, made up of civilian experts from the Ministry of Culture and highly trained soldiers from the Carabinieri Cultural Heritage Protection Command was instrumental in rescuing antique books, archives, art and artifacts during floods in Emilia Romagna and Tuscany in 2023.

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