An ancient two-handed vessel and a red-figure fish-plate will be among items a university returns to Italian ownership after revelations about their underworld links.

An Attic black-figure amphora, which was a common vessel in the ancient Mediterranean world, has sat in the Australian National University’s (ANU) classics museum for almost four decades.

The university bought the more than 2500-year-old amphora from Sotheby’s in London in good faith in 1984 in honour of its founding classics professor Richard St Clair Johnson.

It became known as the Johnson Vase but a specialist art squad from Italy’s military police force – the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage – recently flagged the vase was connected to a notorious antiquities dealer.

The dealer was active in Italy’s illegal trade between the 1970s and 1990s.

The specialist art squad used its database and artificial intelligence-driven stolen artwork detection system to identify the vase as being illegally excavated and sold.

The university, which has worked through the logistics of repatriating the vase since 2022, has struck a deal with the Italian government to display the piece on loan for four years.

The agreement was expected to be finalised later this year and had scope for an additional four-year extension, the university suggested.

“Conversations about the repatriation of ancient artefacts have become prominent in recent years, as institutions across the world grapple with the legacies of historical collection practices,” ANU Classics Museum curator Georgia Pike-Rowney said.

“ANU is no exception.

“We are proud to take a leading role in this important work and to return the vase to its rightful owners.”

The Johnson name would be scrapped from the vase, which depicted the son of Zeus, Herakles, fighting the Nemean Lion and two warriors in combat, Dr Pike-Rowney said.

Instead, a reading room would be renamed in the professor’s honour.

The Carabinieri asked to see documents for all of the university’s classics pieces following the vase discovery and found another item – an Apulian red-figure fish-plate – was smuggled out of Italy by another dealer.

The university bought the fish-plate in 1984 from Holland Coins and Antiquities in the US, which was run by David Holland Swingler – now known as a key player in the illegal antiquities trade in the 1980s and 1990s, the university said.

“During trips to Italy, Swingler sourced material directly from tombaroli – literally ‘tomb robbers’ who undertake illegal excavations – then smuggled the items to the US hidden among bundles of pasta and other Italian foods,” Dr Pike-Rowney said.

The university has agreed to repatriate the fish-plate to the Italian government.

It would again display the item on a loan basis, Dr Pike-Rowney said.

A Roman marble portrait head bought from Sotheby’s in London in 1968 would also be repatriated after it was connected with a collection owned by the Vatican, the university said.

The piece, which the university flagged with the Italian government after its own investigation, was on display in the Lateran Palace in Rome.

Source: AAP