Archaeological Looting in Central Italy: Developing Protection Strategies

Map of the Regions of Italy, including the ancient regions relevant to this stud

By Gordon Lobay

A remarkable tomb was discovered in Tuscany in September 2013, containing two sets of skeletal remains laying on two platforms. Included with the remains were pottery, numerous metallic and terracotta objects, and other artifacts. 


The tomb dates to around 600 BCE and is found in the fascinating necropolis of Tarquinia, 80 km north of Rome, which contains roughly 6,000 rock-cut tombs. Early reports suggested that the body on the larger of the two platforms, which also included a spear, was an Etruscan warrior prince, while the second — a partially incinerated skeleton — was thought to be his wife (Ghose 2013). Additional skeletal analysis has since turned that proposition around and it now appears that the individual in the more prominent position, and associated with the spear, was a 35-40-year-old woman (Ghose 2013). This woman has since been dubbed a “warrior princess” in the media. These finds are important for advancing our understanding of Etruscan culture in central Italy between approximately 900 – 300 BCE.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about this discovery is that it exists at all. The entire region of Central Italy has endured continual and severe archaeological looting ever since ancient times. For instance, in 1962, the civil engineer and archaeologist Carlo Lerici discovered that 400 out of the 550 tombs he investigated at a single site had been looted since World War II. Considering the scale of looting, the recent discovery at Tarquinia is an exciting opportunity to study a new and fully intact Etruscan tomb. It is also a stark reminder about what we lose when archaeological sites are destroyed and stripped of objects.

I am interested in the strategies that governments use to protect cultural property. My research focuses on archaeological looting, the antiquities trade and the impacts of legal instruments on both the market and the protection of archaeological sites. In order to investigate cultural property markets, it’s necessary to gather systematic data. Data is important in evaluating the effectiveness of legislation, international agreements and other national and international interventions to protect antiquities.

During my Ph.D. research at the University of Cambridge (2007), I developed a model for monitoring the antiquities market. My research built upon previous quantitative studies of looting, but focused on specific cultural groups in specific regions. I aimed my approach at the archaeology of Central Italy, particularly the Etruscans and other pre-Roman “Italic” tribes in the region. I chose this particular geographical area and cultural groups because many of the artifacts found in these sites are highly distinguishable, even out of context, on the art market.

I gathered information on the consignments of Etruscan and Italic artifacts from nearly 500 auction catalogues at Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s from 1970–2005 and observed about 7,000 central Italian artifacts on the market (see tables below). Auctions are an “open” trading venue and they regularly publish their sales in catalogues and online. Unfortunately, the majority of looted artifacts are traded privately, meaning these activities are invisible, except when police seize looted artifacts or access is granted by market insiders (Watson and Todeschini 2006).

At very top: Map of the Regions of Italy, including the ancient regions relevant to this study (source: created by the author, based on that found in Haynes 2000); Volume of pre-Roman artifacts from Central Italy consigned to auction at Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, 1970-2005; published provenance of pre-Roman artifacts from Central Italy consigned to auction at Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, 1970-2005 (source: Lobay 2007, used with permission).

The key characteristics I tracked in this study included: 

  • Volume: the number of distinguishable artifacts on the market within a specified period of time;
  • Artifact descriptions: detailed descriptions of artifacts consigned to auction;
  • Prices: estimated price at auction and if available, the realized price (the amount actually paid for the artifact);
  • Provenance: details from market sources can by classified into a further four categories:

o   Name: names of people, such as former owners or others associated with the artifact;

o   No Provenance: no supporting details whatsoever or unusable information, such as “acquired by the present owner as a 21st birthday present in 1960” (Bonhams, Antiquities, 21 April 2005, Sale ID 11597, lot 438);

o   Previous Sale: information about past sales in which the artifact appeared, such as in dealers’ shops or auctions; and,

o   Vague: overly broad geographical region (e.g., Italy), dates of acquisition (without the name of an owner), or other details that cannot be corroborated.

Using this data, I looked at trends in the antiquities market through auction sales, and assessed the impact of interventions, such as legislation and international agreements, on market activity.

In a 2009 publication I reported on my evaluation of the 2001 US-Italy Bilateral Agreement, which restricts imports to the United States of certain archaeological objects from Italy, making it more difficult for these artifacts to enter the large American antiquities market, and thereby reducing the incentive to loot in the first place. I used the same approach to gathering information on Central Italian artifacts in 50 auctions sales in America, observing market activity prior to, and following the implementation of, the Agreement. An effective bilateral agreement would, in theory, show:

  • a reduction in volume of antiquities reaching the US market;
  • an increase in provenance details published with antiquities in auction catalogues; and,
  • an increase in realized prices achieved at auction (caused by the diminished supply of antiquities).

I learned that the market for these antiquities increased at American auction sales after the implementation of the bilateral agreement. However, provenance information also increased, which was a positive development. Unfortunately, the type of provenance used in auction catalogues was, at the time, changing, and increasingly, the only provenance included with objects was their previous sale details, which say nothing about where an object was found, or its legitimacy. The fact that many objects are sold in groups makes it difficult to study whether realized prices increased, because there is no reliable data for an individual artifact.

This study contributed to a clearer picture of the antiquities market, and helped identify several artifact types that appeared on the market frequently, but were either not covered under the Agreement, or were designated in an unclear manner (Lobay 2009). I was invited to share my results with the US Department of State’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee (CPAC) during the two successful renewals of the Agreement in 2006 and 2011. 

As archaeologists, we aim to gather as much contextual information about a given site or landscape as possible and I am taking that same approach to markets for antiquities and other types of cultural property. My work defines key features of the antiquities market and develops methodologies for deeper investigations that can contribute to informing national and international protection strategies. 

I am also interested in applying my methodology to other markets. In 2009–2010 I was Collections Management Advisor at the University of Alberta. A significant part of my role involved engagement with the geology, meteorite and palaeontology collections where I worked with colleagues to designate several specimens as “Canadian Cultural Property.” It’s interesting to see how the trade of these scientific specimens, or scientific property, is linked to cultural property. While the current administration of these types of specimens in Canada, and internationally, largely falls under cultural property legislation, and while they undoubtedly have cultural significance, the needs in protecting them and monitoring their associated markets are quite unique. Insights from cultural property researchers would be invaluable here, and I believe IPinCH could play an important role in defining and developing new protection strategies.



Bonhams Auction Catalogue. 2005. Antiquities, 21 April 2005, Sale ID 11597.

Chechi, Alessandro. 2009. Facilitating the Restitution of Cultural Objects Through Cooperation: The Case of the 2001 US-Italy Agreement and its Relevance for Mediterranean Countries. In The Illicit Traffic of Cultural Objects in the Mediterranean, EUI Working Papers, AEL 2009/9, edited by Ana Filipa, Vrdoljak and Francesco, Francioni, pp. 149–162. European University Institute, Badia Fiesolana.

Gerstenblith, Patty. 2006. Recent United States Legal Developments in the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage. In Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Trade in Antiquities, edited by Neil, Brodie et al., pp. 134–187. University Press of Florida, Gainsville.

Ghose, Tia. 2013. Oops! That Etruscan warrior prince was actually a warrior princess. NBC News. 

Haynes, Sybille. 2000. Etruscan Civilization: A Culture History. British Museum Press, London.

Lerici, Carlo. 1962. Italia Sepolta. Lerici editori, Milan.

Lobay, Gordon. 2007. Objects and Objectivity: An Archaeology of Auctions. Central Italian Antiquities at Bonhams, Christie’s and Sotheby’s 1970–2005. Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, Department of Archaeology, University of Cambridge, Homerton College.

— 2009. Border Controls in Market Countries as Disincentives to Antiquities Looting at Source? The US-Italy Bilateral Agreement 2001. In Criminology and Archaeology: Studies in Looted Antiquities, edited by Simon, Mackenzie and Penny, Green, pp. 59–82. Hart, Oxford.

—forthcoming. Looting and the Antiquities Trade. In A Companion to the Etruscans, edited by S. Bell and A. Carpino. Wiley-Blackwell, Malden, Mass..

Lorenzi, Rossella. 2013. Skeleton of Ancient Prince Reveals Etruscan Life. Discovery News. 

Papa Sokal, Marina. 2006. The US Response to the Protection of World Cultural Heritage. In Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Trade in Antiquities, edited by Neil, Brodie et al., pp. 69–133. University Press of Florida, Gainsville.

Watson, Peter, and Cecilia, Todeschini. 2006. The Medici Conspiracy. Public Affairs, New York.