TAMPA — When a St. Petersburg man bought an ornate, hand-painted, 15th-century missal page from an art dealer in Islamorada in 1997, he had no idea it had been stolen from an Italian archdiocese seven years earlier.
His ignorance precluded criminal charges against him but did nothing to help him recover the $5,500 he spent on the page.
The page was returned to the Italian government Monday during a ceremony in the offices of U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement in Tampa. A. Lee Bentley III, acting U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Florida, used it to deliver a message to art collectors: Buyer beware.
“Buyers better do their due diligence,” Bentley said. “They don’t want to sink a lot of money to acquire art that may be stolen for fear they will lose their investments.”
If art collectors do knowingly purchase stolen art, he said, the face prosecution.
“We are letting the public know that if we find stolen art or artifacts in the United States, we are going to cooperate with foreign governments to return it to its rightful home.”
Since 2007, more than 7,150 stolen artifacts have been returned to 27 countries through Homeland Security Investigations. The event Monday marked the first return from the Tampa area.
It was more an isolated incident than the sign of a trend, said Shane Folden, deputy special agent in charge of Homeland Security Investigations in Tampa.
Still, Folden added, “We are always looking for leads and clues.
“Homeland Security Investigations is an experienced leader investigating crimes involving the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property and art,” he said.
The page was one of many taken from the Missal of Ludovico da Romagnano in 1990 from the Capitular Archive of the Archdiocese in Turin. Through a combination of an illegal underground art smuggling network and legal art dealers, it made its way to St. Petersburg.
The page features Latin calligraphy bordered by a hand-drawn floral design in red, blue, green and gold, and an oversized initial letter surrounding a sketch of St. Lawrence of Rome, all of which makes up a portion of a prayer to the saint.
“It’s a beautiful piece of the Italian culture,” said Adolfo Barattolo, consulate general of Italy in Miami. “We are very grateful to have it back.”