Reality TV star and beauty mogul Kim Kardashian must forfeit an ancient Roman sculpture, according to a recent civil forfeiture action filed by the United States government. Italy’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage released a statement concluding the work was “looted, smuggled, and illegally exported.”
In 2016 Kardashian acquired the piece from art dealer Axel Vervoordt’s Belgium gallery, although authorities believe she was unaware of its dubious origins. U.S. border authorities later detained the work after they were alerted that it might be protected cultural property.
Made between the first and second century AD, ‘Fragment of Myron’s Samian Athena’ is a limestone Roman copy of an original Greek sculpture depicting the warrior goddess Athena. Only the lower half of the statue survives. In February 2018, archaeologists discovered that it had never been reported as a fortuitous find, nor been subject to a request for an export license from Italy.
The logistics company Masterpiece International had provided the documentation for Kardashian’s sculpture, which reported the shipment was of “antiques of an age exceeding 100 years,” rather than archaeological material. It arrived in a shipment valued at $745,882 (£535,875), containing 40 other antiques, Modern furniture, and decorative objects.
Under the 1970 UNESCO Convention, it is illegal for items of historical or cultural importance found after 1970 to be exported from their countries of origin without special permission. In the U.S., the Cultural Property Implementation Act, also restricts the import of some ancient and ethnographical material culture. It stipulates that archaeological finds from Italy must have proper documentation authorising the import or an affidavit, license, or permit declaring the export is not in violation of any Italian laws.
Italian cultural heritage officials say they confiscated the allegedly trafficked sculpture of Athena from Vervoordt’s gallery booth at TEFAF Maastricht in 2011. This was a year before Vervoordt purchased it from Galerie Chenel, according to court documents.
Ollivier Chenel, director of Galerie Chenel, maintains the statue had been loaned to Vervoordt before it was officially acquired. He added “it is very strange that [the complaint does not mention] the German auction house as the information was given to them at the time. I can guarantee you that this sculpture was acquired legally at Hampel auction house in 2010.”
An unsworn affidavit signed by Robert Lauwers, director of Vervoordt’s art-historical department, asserted that the statue “did not originate from Italy,” instead it had been purchased from Hampel auction house in Germany and prior to then an old English estate.
Italian authorities are now seeking the repatriation of ‘Fragment of Myron’s Samian Athena’.