fresco Pompeii J Paul Getty Museum Italy

See the story behind Italy’s stolen treasures

Until 5 November, a Rome exhibition displays pieces looted and stolen from Italy, and celebrates those who returned some of the art world’s most contentious antiquities.

In a new exhibition at Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo, an imposing fortress-turned-state museum, visitors get the chance to see top-notch antiquities and artefacts that – had events unfolded differently – might never have been on public display, especially not in Italy.

Running until 5 November, Capolavori dell’archeologia: Recuperi, ritrovamenti, confronti (Masterpieces of archaeology: Recovery, findings, comparisons) displays pieces looted, stolen or illegally exported from the country, and celebrates those who succeeded in returning some of the art world’s most contentious antiquities. To illustrate the extent of the problem, the Guardia di Finanza, Italy’s police force, has recovered 874,163 archaeological works and 2,416 paintings in the past two years.

The exhibition, which includes dozens of works of art, serves as a sobering reminder of how widespread and damaging looting in Italy has been. One display points out that when an item is looted, the problem isn’t just that it risks disappearing into the hands of a private collector, winding up abroad or being damaged. (One popular way to transport looted vases, for example, is to deliberately break them into shards and reconstruct them later, as fragments are easier to hide and move.) The irreversible loss is the item’s context. Without knowing where the piece was found, at what depth, or near which other objects, it is all but impossible to fully reconstruct the piece’s history, use and meaning.

With or without their context, however, the pieces in the exhibition – including ancient sarcophagi, sculptures, vases, frescoes and more – are invaluable. And many represent the culmination of decade-long investigations and groundbreaking cases.

One treasure is the head and extremities of a Morgantina acrolith. Acroliths were statues generally made with wooden trunks and marble heads; dating from 530 to 520BC, this is one of the oldest in the Western world and is widely believed to have been looted from the ancient Greek site of Morgantina in Sicily along with another acrolith. A collector later donated the acroliths to the University of Virginia’s Art Museum, which returned them to Italy in 2008. (Under the 1970 Unesco Convention on the illicit movement of cultural property, signed by the US in 1983 and Britain in 2001, a buyer of stolen antiquities must return the items, even if purchased in good faith.)

In another section of the exhibition, large vibrant pieces of fresco from a villa in Pompeii, dating back to the 1st Century BC, hang on the wall. The frescoes came to Rome from the J Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, and are just some of the artefacts that have created a whirlwind of controversy for the Malibu museum – and that have since been returned to Italy.

In 2005, the Getty’s former curator of antiquities Marion True was indicted with receiving stolen goods from Italy and conspiring to deal in looted artefacts (In 2010, Rome’s court ruled that the statue of limitations on her case had expired). In 2007, the Getty agreed to return 40 disputed objects to Italy, and all three frescoes were recovered by 2009.

The exhibition’s crown jewel though, is the Euphronios krater. Dating back to the 6th Century BC, the red-figure krater (a large vessel the ancient Greeks used to mix water and wine) shows in exquisite detail the death of Lycian king Sarpedon in the Trojan War. Evidence suggests that the item was looted in Italy and passed through the hands of Giacomo Medici, an Italian antiquities dealer convicted in 2004 for receiving stolen goods, illegally exporting goods and conspiring to traffic. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, which had purchased the krater in 1972, returned it along with 20 other objects of dubious provenance to Italy in 2008.

Amanda Ruggeri is the Rome Localite for BBC Travel. She also writes