Mother Goddess auction: Christie’s halts sale of 'stolen' $1m Bronze Age pagan icon after Sardinia campaigns for its return

Italian police intervene as politician demands an end to the 'robbery of the heritage and civilisation of Sardinia'

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The Independent Online

A campaign in Sardinia to reclaim a 4,500-year-old pagan idol from a US auction house is gathering pace ahead of its scheduled sale next week, as Italy steps up the fight against the theft of its precious cultural patrimony.

Christie’s in New York had listed the marble religious artefact Dea Madre, or Mother Goddess, dating from about 2500BC, for sale on 11 December. Auctioneers hoped to sell the Bronze Age statuette for as much as $1.2m (£770,000). But campaigners claimed an initial victory today after hearing that the sale had been put on hold. 

Mauro Pili, a Sardinian politician leading the drive to stop what he calls the “robbery of the heritage and civilisation of Sardinia”, said: “The battle against archaeological theft has reached a decisive point.”

Paolo Montorsi, a commander with the national TPC carabinieri unit, which protects Italy’s cultural heritage, told La Nuova Sardegna newspaper that he was investigating “who the current owner of the artefact is and how it came into their possession”. “It is up to them to prove, with documentation, that they have the right to possess it,” headded.

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A 'Mother Goddess' statuette, similar to the one that has been withdrawn from auction

Francesca Barracciu, the Under-Secretary for Culture, said the government in Rome was determined to track down and reclaim all stolen artworks under a 1993 international law which demands the return of goods removed illegally from a country. She said her ministry was working with the justice department to crack down further on cultural theft, by introducing tougher penalties and listing new offences to close legal loopholes.

Mr Pili, an MP with the small Unitos party, is also calling for action in tracing six bronze artefacts linked to the island’s Nuragic civilisation, which appear to have been stolen from Sardinia and sold on a New York-based website. The missing bronzes were probably already part of private collections in England, France and Switzerland, having being illegally removed from Italy more than 30 years ago. So there is “no possibility of discerning when or from where they were stolen”, according to Ms Barracciu. But Italy would consider employing “informal methods” to regain them. “The carabinieri have already made information contact with their counterparts to arrive at an extrajudicial solution,” she said.

Tales of missing or stolen objects are legion in Italy. And the TPC heritage police manage the world’s largest database of stolen art, holding details of 5.7 millionworks. Last year, officers investigated the suspected theft of possibly thousands of rare books from the Girolamini Library in Naples, which were allegedly smuggled out and sold abroad by its former director.

In March, there was outrage after a thief ripped a portion of a fresco of Apollo and Artemis from a wall at Pompeii.

The issue of stolen art and cultural objects has been in the headlines this year with the vexed issued of the British Museum’s possession of the Greek Elgin marbles. But some campaigns to recover lost works seem to have little chance of success. In 2012, Italian campaigners collected more than 150,000 signatures calling on the Louvre museum in Paris to hand over Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to its “home city” of Florence.

Armed with the petition, the National Committee for Historical, Cultural and Environmental Heritage, which, despite its title, is not endorsed by the Italian government, made a formal request to the French culture minister, Aurelie Filippetti, for the world’s most famous painting to be returned to the Uffizi Museum where was displayed in the early 20th century.

Not surprisingly, the French, who point out that Leondardo took the painting with him to France before it came into the possession of the royal family there, gave the campaign short shrift.

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