The head belongs to a statue of Flavia Domitilla Minor, the daughter of the emperor Vespasian and sister of emperors Titus and Domitian. The statue was excavated from the UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site of Sabratha and was on display at Sabratha’s Roman museum in 1990 when thieves broke the head off of the body and absconded with it. (Some of the news stories are saying it was stolen in the 1960s, but I think that’s just one of the AP’s trademark typos getting passed around like a game of telephone.)
It turned up last year as lot #261 of the April 14 Antiques sale at Christie’s London. I will give you one guess as to the provenance they claimed on the piece. Oh yeah. It’s our old friend the Swiss private collection. They removed the lot from their website after they got busted, but this article quotes their original lot notes: “private collection, Switzerland, circa 1975; acquired by the present owner in Switzerland in 1988.” It was still attached to its body in a Libyan museum in 1988. Such a blatant lie.
London-based Libyan archaeologist Hafed Walda saw the lot before the auction and alerted Christie’s that it was the Domitilla head stolen from the Sabratha Museum. They ignored him and sold it to an Italian buyer for £91,250 ($142,000). Archaeologist and brilliant blogger Dorothy King also tried to get Christie’s attention but they blew her off too.
My experience of Christie’s is that that’s par for the course, but just in case … I knew they couldn’t give me the buyer’s details, so I asked the head of department, Ms Georgina Aitken, to pass mine on to the buyer as I had some information about the history of the piece. Ms Aitken said she would not do so unless I told her what the information was. I briefly explained that there was evidence to suggest that the head might have been looted and that the provenance was faked, and that Christie’s were aware of this and did nothing. There are more chances of pigs flying than of this information being passed on to the buyer.
Said buyer took his purchase home only to voluntarily relinquish it a few months later to the Carabinieri Art Squad. Christie’s had the audacity to respond thus:
A Christie’s spokesman said: “Additional information was brought to our attention after the auction. We subsequently cancelled the sale and are assisting all relevant bodies with the return of this object.”
See how weaselly that “additional information” bit is? Because Hafed Walda told them where that head really came from before the auction so they couldn’t say they had no idea they were selling stolen goods again. No, they just got additional info long after the fact, you see, that really clinched it for them. Please. Anyway they just reimbursed the buyer and that’s the end of that. No consequences. This is why they keep selling artifacts from “Swiss private collections” over and over again, even when there’s hard evidence that they were stolen.
To close on a less enraging note, here’s a fun fact about Flavia Domitilla Minor: she died at just 21 years old three years before her father Vespasian became emperor in 69 A.D. Twelve years after that, her younger brother Domitian became emperor. He deified her and granted her the title of Augusta.
Her daughter Flavia Domitilla converted to Judaism/Christianity (the Talmud claims the former, Eusebius the latter) and was exiled to the island of Pandataria by her uncle Domitian for her “atheism” which included a refusal to worship her own mother along with the rest of the imperial family and traditional Roman pantheon. She is now a Christian saint and her former property is the exquisite catacomb of Santa Domitilla.