A Hercules fresco from Herculaneum is one of the 60 pieces of illegally trafficked artifacts being returned to Italy by the United States.

Dozens of artifacts, between 1500 and 3000 years old, were recovered from private collections in the past few years. Found in various investigations, they all lacked documentation that they were legally exported from Italy. Owners of archaeological objects dug up in Italy must have documentation either that they had government approval to be removed, or that they were removed from Italy before 1909.

The fresco, a small painted piece of wall, probably from over a door, depicts the mythic hero Hercules as a child, strangling the snake sent by Hera. It was excavated from Herculaneum sometime in the past twenty years. The vagueness is a part of the whole problem of artifact trafficking – there is no provenance for researchers. No way of knowing anything more about the artwork than what is visible on its surface.

Herculaneum, which was buried in ash in 79 A.D. along with Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, has been the source of a great deal of trafficked art over the decades. Less well-known than Pompeii, it is less monitored, excavated, and documented, leaving it ripe for plucking.

Also being returned alongside the Hercules fresco is a kylix (a shallow two-handled drinking vessel) from around 600 B.C., and a sculpted marble head of of the goddess Athena, likely from some home shrine.

According to Italy, the sixty works are worth over $20 million in all. Decisions are still being made about where to send them. Italian cultural authorities want to return them to museums near their assumed sources, but another possibility being looked at is a special exhibition dedicated to repatriated pieces. These 60, after all, are far from the only ones. Over 500 Italian antiquities have been recovered in recent years, in more than 75 raids.

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