Ancient Roman artefact used as coffee table in apartment for 50 years

The artefact was returned to the Italian government in 2017 before going on display earlier this year

Thomas Kingsley
Saturday 27 November 2021 00:56 GMT
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A 2,000-year-old Roman artifact has been recovered after being used as a coffee table in a Manhattan apartment for nearly 50 years.

The priceless Roman mosaic dates back to the time of emperor Caligula who ruled the now fallen empire from AD 37 to his assassination in AD 41.

The artefact was the subject of Sunday’s episode of the CBS show 60 Minutes, where Italian marble expert Dario Del Bufalo explained how he found the rare artefact by chance.

At a 2013 signing of Mr Del Bufalo’s book, Porphyry, which details the igneous purple-red rock that Roman emperors used for their art and architecture, Del Bufalo’s recalled meeting a couple who recognised the mosaic pattern printed on the cover of the publication.

“There was a lady with a young guy with a strange hat that came to the table,” Mr Del Bufalo said. “And he told her, ‘What a beautiful book. Oh, Helen, look, that’s your mosaic.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, that’s my mosaic.’”

Mr Del Bufalo wrapped up the book signing to question the pair, who revealed that the artefact formed the top of a coffee table at their Park Avenue apartment.

Before then, the mosaic had been thought missing. It was originally used as floor tiling in a ship that submerged in Italy’s Lake Nemi during ancient times before being recovered in the 1930s. The remaining mosaics were held in a lakeside museum but in 1944, the Nazis infiltrated Italy and used the museum as a bomb shelter burning it and its contents as they retreated - Italians claim.

The mosaic had been in a Park Avenue apartment for almost 50 years
The mosaic had been in a Park Avenue apartment for almost 50 years (Getty Images)

The owner of the artefact turned coffee table was Helen Fioratti, an art dealer who owns a gallery for European antiques and lives in Manhattan. She told the New York Times in 2017 that she and her husband - journalist Nereo Fioratti - had bought the piece in good faith from an Italian noble family in the 1960s and had no reason to suspect they were not the mosaic’s rightful owners.

Once the Fiorattis brought the mosaic home to their Park Avenue apartment, they affixed it to a base to turn it into coffee table.

“It was an innocent purchase,” Ms Fioratti told the Times in 2017. “It was our favourite thing and we had it for 45 years.”

Prosecutors for the Manhattan district attorney’s office, however, say evidence suggests the mosaic had been stolen from the Nemi museum, the New York Times reported. It was subsequently seized in September 2017 and returned to the Italian government.

Mr Del Bufalo told 60 Minutes he sympathizes with Ms Fioratti. “I felt very sorry for her, but I couldn't do anything different, knowing that my museum in Nemi is missing the best part that went through the centuries, through the war, through a fire, and then through an Italian art dealer, and finally could go back to the museum,” he said. “That's the only thing I felt I should have done.”

After being cleaned, the mosaic was unveiled in March this year at Nemi’s Museum of the Roman Ships.

In the meantime, Mr Del Bufalo, had fashioned a replica of the mosaic. He told 60 Minutes he wants to make a copy for Ms Fioratti to return to her apartment on Park Avenue, because as he explained, “I think my soul would feel a little better.”

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