A looted mosaic that once decorated a ship of the Roman Emperor Caligula and ended up as a coffee table in New York City finally returned home Thursday, as details emerged about the lucky break in the investigation that got it there.
Officials unveiled the mosaic at the Museum of Roman Ships, which was built in the 1930s specifically to house the treasures of two huge ceremonial ships Caligula commissioned in around AD 40. The ships eventually sank and were excavated from the depths of Lake Nemi, in the Alban hills south of Rome, starting in the late 1890s.
The mosaic, a 1.5 square-meter geometric print in rich green, reddish-purple and white stone, was part of an inlaid floor on one of the ships, which were designed and decorated essentially as floating palazzi in a testament to Caligula’s greatness.
It’s unclear when the mosaic passed into private hands or under what circumstances. But eventually it was purchased by a New York antiquities dealer and her Italian journalist husband, who shipped it back to New York and made a coffee table out of it for their Park Avenue apartment.
And there it sat, relatively undisturbed, until Oct. 23, 2013. That night, at the Bulgari jewelry store on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue, marble and stones expert Dario Del Bufalo was giving a lecture and book signing for his new book “Porphyry,” on the rare reddish-purple stone preferred by the Roman emperors, that was attended by New York’s cultural elite.
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