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Discovered at a book launch: the curious case of Caligula’s coffee table

Nemi: A looted mosaic that once decorated Roman emperor Caligula’s ship and ended up as a coffee table in New York City finally returned home Thursday, as details emerged about the lucky break in the investigation that got it there.

Officials unveiled the mosaic at the Museum of Roman Ships, which was built in the 1930s specifically to house the treasures of two huge ceremonial ships Caligula commissioned in around AD 40. The ships eventually sank and were excavated from the depths of Lake Nemi, in the Alban hills south of Rome.

The mosaic, a 1.5 square-metre geometric print in rich green, reddish-purple and white stone, was part of an inlaid floor on one of the ships, which were designed and decorated essentially as floating palazzi in a testament to Caligula’s greatness.

Authorities stand around a 1.5 square metre mosaic dating back to 40 AD, belonging to Caligula’s lavish ceremonial ships.

Authorities stand around a 1.5 square metre mosaic dating back to 40 AD, belonging to Caligula’s lavish ceremonial ships.Credit:AP

It’s unclear when the mosaic passed into private hands or under what circumstances. But eventually it was purchased by a New York antiquities dealer and her Italian journalist husband, who shipped it back to New York and made a coffee table out of it for their Park Avenue apartment.

And there it sat, relatively undisturbed, until October 23, 2013. That night, at the Bulgari jewelry store on Manhattan’s 5th Avenue, marble and stones expert Dario Del Bufalo was giving a lecture and book signing for his new book Porphyry, on the rare purple stone preferred by the Roman emperors, that was attended by New York’s cultural elite.

A marble bust of Caligula: the mosaic came from one of two ships the emperor had built as floating palaces.

A marble bust of Caligula: the mosaic came from one of two ships the emperor had built as floating palaces.

As he was signing books, Del Bufalo said he overheard two women who were leafing through his book exclaim: “This is Helen’s mosaic! This is Helen’s mosaic!’” after seeing a photograph of the work.

“I didn’t understand,” Del Bufalo said at the ceremony where the mosaic was put on display at the Nemi museum. “There were a lot of art experts and I asked ‘Who is Helen?’ And they told me she is a woman who has a house on Park Avenue and this same mosaic.”

Helen was Helen Fioratti, the antiquities dealer, and soon she would be caught up in the investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, the Italian culture ministry and carabinieri art squad, all of which were hunting down antiquities that had been looted from Italy and ended up in private collections and top museums.

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