Looted 400-year-old books from Italy turn up in California

Ancient books looted from Italy pop up in California, ferreted out in @wwwicegov investigations

Two antique books dating to at least the 17th century that were looted from Italy have turned up in California  -- a relief for the Italian government, which will get the rare tomes back, and a surprise for the San Francisco buyer, who was unaware they were stolen.

The books, “Stirpium Historiae” and “Rariorm Plantarum Historia Anno 1601,” were stolen from the Historical National Library of Agriculture in Italy and sold to the U.S. buyer in San Francisco, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The volumes were recovered in July 2014.

The books were among 19 stolen cultural antiquities that will be repatriated to the Italian government this week following 11 separate investigations throughout the U.S.

Homeland Security agents also recovered three frescoes stolen from clandestine sites in Pompeii.

ICE spokesman Brandon Montgomery says no arrests have been made. Authorities believe the thefts are part of a much larger antiquities looting enterprise.

He said the plan is to "dismantle the criminal enterprise, not just the individual."

Other stolen items included several valuables dating to 300-400 BC, a 17th century cannon, a Roman bronze bust from the 2nd century,  5th century Greek pottery and the lid to the ancient Roman marble sarcophagus the Sleeping Ariadne.

The cannon was found smuggled inside a large piece of tractor equipment. It had been shipped from Egypt to the U.S.

In the San Francisco case, the buyer was unaware the books had been reported stolen, ICE spokeswoman Virginia Kice said.

The buyer and his siblings purchased the books from a source they believed was reputable, and he had what he believed was legitimate evidence to prove it -- an invoice, emails and an exportation license from the Italian government. Authorities did not say whether the documentation was fake.

The buyer met with agents from Homeland Security in 2013 and was willingly turning over the books, which at the time were in Belgium before being shipped to the U.S.  It wasn’t until 2014 that the San Francisco agents finally obtained the books, Montgomery said.

As for the Pompeii artifacts, agents recovered the three frescoes from AD 63-79 and an askos, or pottery vessel, dating to the 4th century BC.

Special agents in San Diego got a tip from New York about the Pompeii antiquities.

They were able to trace the owner to the Allen E. Paulson Trust, according to Montgomery. But Paulson died in 2000, so agents tried to work with his ex-wife, as well as his son from a previous marriage, he said.

His ex-wife was not averse to offering up information, Montgomery said, and led them to the mother of Paulson's son in Boise, Idaho -- and the antiquities.

Investigators, he said, are trained to spot real and fake artifacts. They often browse through fine art catalogs, looking for stolen antiques.

Prosecuting private buyers in possession of stolen art is not always simple. They often don’t know the art was stolen or just deny any knowledge of the stolen art, Montgomery said.

“Each of one of these cases is different,” he said. “It’s just something that just kind of happens.”

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