23 February 2008

Poppaea's Painting in Paris

At her swish villa at Oplontis (near Pompeii), the Empress Poppaea Sabina* -- Nero's second wife -- enjoyed some of the finest Roman paintings ever put on a wall anywhere. Many are still almost perfectly conserved. They "are considered among the best to have survived from the Roman world and can be admired on-site."

But one painting could not be admired on-site. Where once was a painted picture of a landscape with temples, gardens, fountains, a Greek assembly place and a walled residence, you'd have seen nothing but empty scraped-off plaster. That doesn't mean you could not admire it nonetheless -- but only if you visited quite another swish house ... in Paris. Mais oui!

This is the hot archaeological news of the day:

A fresco pinched from a Roman villa villa near Pompeii over 30 years ago has been recovered
by police in a major
operation into stolen artwork and artefacts.... The fresco was tracked down during a lengthy Italian-led international investigation, which has resulted in trafficking and fraud charges against 31 people in Italy, France and Switzerland. Operation Ulysses has uncovered a haul of more than a thousand archaeological finds and a series of outstanding Impressionist forgeries. The trail initially led investigators to Milan and then eventually abroad, first to Switzerland and later onto Paris. The fresco was finally tracked down to an elegant house in the French capital.

Chutzpah Among Thieves

The French press doesn't seem to have picked up this story yet so I've not been able to learn more about this "elegant house" embellished with a stolen Pompeiian fresco ... but I have to admire the chutzpah** of the thieves.

Looting archaeological sites on a grand scale is unfortunately nothing exceptional. No, what makes this gang special is how they financed their international crookery. They raised bank loans. What's so strange about that? Just that they used as collateral their collection of modern paintings. And all of those paintings were forged.

[The police] also discovered several outstanding Impressionist forgeries in a Milanese house, used as collateral for hefty bank loans. The 22 fakes included a Monet and a Degas. A selection of forged paintings from great 20th-century Italian artists, such as Giorgio De Chirico, Mario Schifano and Lucio Fontana, were also used to raise credit, police said.
Phoney modern paintings. Real antiquities.

You have to admire their priorities.

You don't often find such aplomb among thieves.

* On this much maligned empress, see Wikipedia's balanced article.

** A Yiddish-English word I've used before and explained, though you have to scroll to the end of that post to find it.


  1. And thanks, too, to David Gill, an image of the stolen fresco : from Reuters Pictures

  2. I am a painter and often think that I would have made a lot more money had I specialized in "imitating" ancient and impressionist painters. I'm glad that the works are resurfacing. Chutzpa indeed!

  3. Chuckle. We both could have earned lots more money if we had chosen imitative careers.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. I deleted the previous comment from Historianofasia not for any nefarious reason, but because there was also a reply to a technical question of mine -- which I am not yet ready to put in public view. Here, however, is the rest of Stuart Gordon's comment:

    "I haven't seen much use of SNA [Note: System Networks Analysis] in archaeology yet. The biggest user is still the CIA and law enforcement (for terrorist networks and things like money laundering). Much of this work is classified but a lot is not. I'm trying to find what they've worked out - in unclassified reports and such.

    There's good new research on the spice trade starting to come out. Much of it, long after your period, is based on the Jewish geniza documents of the twelfth century. I'm working on translations in by Mordechai Freeman, entitled "Indian Traders of the Middle Ages (Brill, 2006). There have also been several popular books on the spice trade, none of them good.

    I really enjoyed your current post on the upwardly-mobile priest. I've gotten interested in Manichaeans. There was a good paper at AHA on connections between Cathars and Tabriz in the early Ren. period. Mostly based on wall murals at Sienna and Florence that show men in clearly Central Asian costume and armor. Neat connections that I didn't know about.

    Stay in touch. Best, Stewart"


Blog Archive