For the first time outside of Italy, an exclusive U.S. art exhibit of stolen Italian artifacts is set to open right here in Delaware.

"These pieces don't come from a private collection or museum collection," said exhibit organizer Emiliano Guerra. "All of the pieces that you see is stolen art. It's Italian stolen art."

The exhibit features 120 pieces of Etrusco-Greco-Roman statues, mosaics and ceramics. They were all stolen and later recovered from art traffickers around the world by the Guardia di Finanza.

The Guardia di Finanza, or Financial Guard, is a special unit of the Italian government. Members of the unit's Art Recovery Team are credited with retrieving almost a million stolen Italian antiquities in the last 100 years.

The masterpieces will be showcased in Wilmington at the Grand Opera House and in Newark at the University of Delaware's Old College Gallery beginning in October.

"We had this wonderful room with almost 4,000 square feet of space that was available for this exhibit and could be converted into a temporary museum," said Mark Fields, incoming executive director for the Grand. "This beautiful façade of this historic and artistic building is also going to be a very strong connection to this exhibit. This building is a work of art and so we're glad to have the opportunity to house far more ancient, but lovely works of art here."

"It's a big deal, it's a very big deal," said Janis Tomlinson, director of university museums. "It is just a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for the state of Delaware."

The smaller exhibition at UD will complement the concurrent exhibition at the Grand.

"We have many students who are studying the classical world, and we have students in art history," Tomlinson said. "Rather than look at slides of objects, all the students will be able to see and work with these objects firsthand, which is just fantastic."

Story behind the art

In addition to the art, Guerra wants to shine a light on the often times dangerous work of the A.R.T.

Stories about how the 120 items on display were stolen and recovered will also be a big part of the show; some of the stories read like Hollywood action movie scripts.

For example, the Financial Guard recovered a highly-valuable Etruscan vase from a low-level tomb raider and later used it in a sting operation to nab a big-time art buyer. The buyer was part of a larger art crime network who was trying to get the piece out of Italy. Guns were drawn, but in the end, the A.R.T. came out on top. That vase, and its story, is among the masterpieces that will be on display next month.

Retired FBI agent Robert Wittman founded the FBI's own art crime team in 2005. Over the course of his 20-year career, Wittman was responsible for recovering about $300 million worth of stolen art and cultural property.

The New York Times bestselling author said he's tracked down everything from a Civil War battle flag to a $35 million Rembrandt stolen from a museum in Sweden.

"I worked in more than 20 countries, and I did a lot of traveling around the world usually in an undercover capacity to recover this artwork," said Wittman, whose job often pitted him against dangerous criminals. "These individuals were doing things like armed robbery, murder, drug dealing, car and boat theft, I mean they're in all kinds of crimes. It just so happened they did an art heist too," Wittman said.

Art crime represents a $6 billion business worldwide, according to the FBI and Interpol. Art crime encompasses not only stolen art, but also frauds, forgeries and fakes.

Why Delaware?

Exhibit organizer Emiliano Guerra has organized shows for the Financial Guard in Italy for the past 10 years. He said in his home country he avoids big cities like Florence, Rome and Venice.

"If you go to Rome, these kinds of pieces you can find inside some museum," Guerra said. "We want to bring the pieces to the people. We try to put [the show] in cities that don't have these kind of pieces so it's more attractive."

Guerra said Delaware's execution of the large Faberge show 14 years ago left an indelible impression on him. The flawless exhibition of the renowned jeweler's work coupled with enthusiasm from state leaders, Guerra said, made the decision to select Delaware for the show's U.S. debut easy.

Guerra then connected with the International Council of Delaware last year to expedite the process. The nonprofit organization is an advisory group based in Wilmington whose mission is to expand the state's global profile through international education, arts, culture and tourism. The ICD is sponsoring the Italian exhibit.

Treasures and Tales of Italy's Art Recovery Team opens Oct. 3. Tickets for the show at the Grand cost $15 and can be purchased online at ticketsatthegrand.org.

The website for the exhibit can be found at treasuresandtales.com. 


WHYY-TV will air this story on First this Friday at 5:30 p.m. and 11 p.m.