A colorful tile mosaic was used for 50 years in a New York City apartment to hold magazines and coffee cups. Nearly 2,000 years before, that same mosaic was part of the floor of a “party ship” used by the notoriously evil Roman Emperor Caligula (AD 37-41). How did it end up in New York City and how was it rediscovered? Pure happenstance.
Ancient stone and marble expert Italian Dario Del Bufalo was giving a lecture in New York in 2013 and was signing copies of his book Porphyry about a rock used by Roman emperors. The book included a picture of the long-lost floor mosaic on one of two ships commissioned by Caligula. It was sunk when the emperor was killed. The mosaic and other antiquities were recovered from the lake in the 1930s and housed in a lakeside museum. Many of the items were lost or destroyed by the fleeing Nazis.
Nearly 70 years later, Del Bufalo was signing copies of his book. He overheard a man and a woman say the woman had the mosaic they were looking at on the page. The woman was Helen Fioratti, an art dealer and gallery owner. She and her husband, an Italian journalist, bought a mosaic from an Italian noble family in the 1960s. When it arrived in New York, the couple turned it into a coffee table. Until Del Bufalo saw the table and discovered the truth.
The office of the Manhattan district attorney believes the mosaic was stolen, possibly during the war. Returned to Italy, it is now on display at the Museum of the Roman Ships.
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