Mosaic from Roman Emperor’s Party Boat Discovered as Coffee Table in New York

New details about a a mosaic commissioned by a Roman Emperor in the first century that was discovered in private use as a coffee table in New York City were revealed this week, with the item having been seized and returned to Italy upon being identified.

Experts believe the mosaic(pictured) was commissioned to decorate a private boat built for the Emperor Caligula in the year AD 40. The ship, akin to a yacht, eventually sunk in Lake Nemi south of Rome, and was excavated in 1929. Items from the vessel eventually were passed into private hands, and it appears that the mosaic in question was purchased by a New York antiquities dealer with an Italian husband, and faded from public knowledge.

In 2013, Italian author Dario Del Bufalo gave a presentation on his book Porphyry, which featured images of the 1.5 square-meter geometric print, made of reddish-purple and green stone. Two women present at his talk immediately recognized the item, stating that it was “Helen’s table.” The mosaic in question turned out to be none other than the original piece from Caligula’s yacht, and was in use as a coffee table in a Park Avenue apartment.

Del Bufalo’s event ultimately resulted into an investigation on the part of the Manhattan District Attorney, which revealed that the mosaic had become the property of an antiquities dealer named Helen Fioratti. Fioratti asserts that she acquired the item in good faith 40 years ago, failing to understand its cultural value.

The item in question had been sought by Italian cultural authorities, due to the specious circumstances in which it was taken from Italy in the aftermath of World War II. The nearly priceless mosaic was seized by the Manhattan District Attorney in 2017, and returned to its country of origin by Italian consular authorities. The item was publicly displayed in a museum featuring other pieces from Caligula’s two yachts this week, where it’s thought the ruler engaged in bacchanal parties.

Caligula, who was a relative of Caesar Augustus, is understood by historians as one of the more depraved and sadistic rulers of the Roman Empire, gaining a reputation for frequently executing his enemies without trials, governing as a tyrant, and engaging in sexual degeneracy; although he governed in a time of prosperity for the ancient civilization. Caligula was assassinated by his own Praetorian Guard in the year AD 41, being succeeded by Claudius.

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