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The Role of the Carabinieri in the Protection of Cultural Heritage

An interview with Roberto Riccardi

A Carabiniere officer in her TPC uniform examines the damage on a Guercino painting stolen from Modena in 2014 and recovered in Morocco.
Examining the damage on a Guercino painting stolen from Modena in 2014 and recovered in Morocco.
  • A Carabiniere officer in her TPC uniform examines the damage on a Guercino painting stolen from Modena in 2014 and recovered in Morocco.
  • The Carabinieri are trained to catalogue artifacts with precision and delicacy.
  • Raphael's "Portrait of a Young Woman" was stolen in 1975 from Urbino's Ducal Palace and recovered in 1976 in Locarno, Switzerland by the Carabinieri.
  • The Capitoline Triad, an Ancient Roman marble sculpture, was recovered in 1994 near the Stelvio National Park in Northern Italy.
  • This marble head of the Ancient Roman general Drusus was stolen during World War II and brought back in 2017 to the museum in Sessa Aurunca (Campania).
  • The Euphronios krater was returned to Italy in 2008.

General Roberto Riccardi, leader of Italy's Cultural Heritage Protection Command talks with Barbara Faedda, Executive Director of the Italian Academy, about illegal excavations of archaeological sites, trafficking of stolen art pieces, cultural diplomacy, international collaborations, a unique database of stolen works of art, and more.

General Riccardi, the Carabinieri unit for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (known as “TPC” for the Italian “Tutela Patrimonio Culturale”) began in 1969, thanks to a far-sighted initiative aimed at responding effectively—and with structured institutional tools—to the urgent and pervasive problem of the decline of Italy's artistic heritage. This was one year before UNESCO’s Paris Convention (which invited member states to protect cultural heritage and fight illegal trafficking). Can you tell us how your professional identity has developed over the decades, and the details of your operations that led you to become a global leader in the field?

The TPC originated from a constitutional dictate: Article 9 of the Italian Constitution states that the Italian Republic defends the nation’s artistic and historical heritage and its landscape. The first unit, set up in 1969, has grown to reach all parts of Italy, with 16 units in as many Italian regions and a section in Syracuse for eastern Sicily. An operative department with national oversight is in Rome; it has specialized sections in the fields of archaeology, antiques, and forgery. The component dedicated to international cooperation has also been developed: it has a liaison officer in Paris at UNESCO as well as structured collaborations with Interpol and Europol, where the current heads of the artworks sections are officers from the TPC.

The TPC represents one of the most important institutions of cultural diplomacy, which is in turn a valuable tool of “soft power.” Italy has always stressed its commitment and attention to this. One example is the exhibition “Recovered Treasures: The Art of Saving Art,” at the United Nations—which I had the pleasure of visiting together with the Fellows of the Italian Academy in January 2020. That initiative also marked the TPC’s 50th anniversary. How has your role as cultural-diplomacy practitioners evolved in these five decades during which so much has happened internationally?

Cultural diplomacy is constantly growing as a result of international conventions such as the 1995 Unidroit Convention on due diligence and fair compensation to good-faith buyers (when stolen property is returned to the proper owner). But it is also growing because of a change in the global awareness of the ethical code that should be followed in the commerce and exhibition (in museums and elsewhere) of cultural assets. Museums, auction houses, and galleries are now much more cautious when purchasing and verifying the documentation of origin of items. This facilitates our task within the “Committee for restitution and recovery” of Italy’s Ministry of Culture—a department that acts on a lot of Italian claims for the return of items, but that also diligently restitutes items found in Italy that turn out to legitimately belong to other countries.

How do you train the Carabinieri of the TPC on particularly sensitive issues such as cultural diversity, the colonial past, and respect for the communities where you operate?
Can you explain how you interact with the various local, national, and international legislations?
Your TPC collaborates widely with experts and academics in various fields. Can you describe how this works?

When the TPC intervenes abroad in international operations, it organizes or participates in training courses for its personnel, courses that also cover the culture and historical background of the countries in which it operates. With regard to international laws or laws of other countries, the TPC works in synergy with other nations' police forces, with the coordination of international bodies. In each case, we work to find the best ways to reconcile any differences in regulations. Experts and academics are fundamental: they collaborate as part of their institutions, if they work for public authorities; if they are private individuals, they each get appointed as consultants of the public prosecutor’s office or as auxiliaries of the judicial police, so that their expertise can be used in court.

We often read that the illicit trade in artwork is hugely profitable—that it is the third-largest in the world, after drugs and arms trafficking. Can you confirm this? How do you determine the good faith or bad faith of those who own stolen goods?

I can confirm that the issue of illicit trafficking is very important even though I do not have an estimate of the global economic value, from my perspective. Good faith or bad faith gets ascertained based on what arises from our investigations: from phone taps, searches or seizures, scrutiny of documentation, witness examinations, and so on.

Who are the worst enemies of cultural property? What are the major international routes for the illegal trade in artworks? And what markets buy most of these goods?

The worst enemies, unfortunately, are often people who are experts, because they work professionally and unceasingly. Either that, or they are just art lovers. The usual routes lead from countries rich in cultural heritage, due to their history or the presence of archaeological areas, to those where there is a more flourishing market. Among the countries with the most desirable cultural heritage are those around the Mediterranean—because of their ancient civilizations and settlements—and also many in Latin America. Many buyers are in the United States of America and much of Europe.

The TPC is obviously very active in the area of international collaborations. Among the most valuable and useful tools you provide is the “Database of illegally stolen cultural goods,” unanimously recognized as the largest database in the world in this sector. Can you explain how it is organized and what kind of information is found there?

Our database is a fundamental tool for investigation. It was started in 1980 and now has about 1,300,000 files. It also has photographs of more than half of the items; this allows us to recognize them when we locate them, either physically or virtually on the web. A project to develop the software of our data bank has just been funded by the European Union. It is to be completed by the end of 2022 and will allow us to do an automatic search for images from the internet, social media, and the deep web.

Italy was the first country to join UNESCO’s “Unite4Heritage” campaign to establish the “Blue Helmets for Culture,” an initiative designed to strengthen protections for cultural heritage—with a view to safeguarding international peace as well. What are this task force’s composition, expertise, specifics, and areas of operation?

The Carabinieri in this task force are trained to catalogue and secure damaged or at-risk assets, to prepare for subsequent conservation and restoration. Our jurisdiction is the entire world, with coordination from UNESCO. We go to countries affected by natural disasters or devastated by conflicts. Together with the Carabinieri of the TPC are experts from the Ministry of Culture who offer their technical and scientific skills. In 2021 there has already been a mission to Croatia following an earthquake; in 2020 we went to Albania for a similar reason, and to Lebanon following the fire in the port of Beirut, which also damaged historical buildings and artworks.

What kind of collaboration is there, between Italy and the United States, to safeguard cultural heritage?

We have a very good, solid collaboration with the United States, which has produced excellent results. The U.S. federal forces have liaison officers in Rome, but there is also direct contact with the judicial and investigative offices in Washington, New York, and other cities. Because of their expertise in the field, we have the best information exchange with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and with Homeland Security Investigations (within Immigration and Customs Enforcement). We also make extensive use of diplomatic channels, thanks to the support of the embassies and consulates in Italy and the United States. We have a steady stream of recoveries and returns although right now asset transfers are subject to pandemic restrictions.

Interview translated by Abigail Asher.

Photos: Courtesy of the Comando Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale

This interview is part of the Academy's International Observatory for Cultural Heritage.

Event Date 
Fri, May 7, 2021, 7:00 am to Sun, May 9, 2021, 5:00 pm