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Couple Used Caligula's Lost Mosaic as Coffee Table

Italian stone expert Dario Del Bufalo speaks on his 2013 discovery
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 27, 2021 11:00 AM CST
Couple Used Caligula's Lost Mosaic as Coffee Table
Patrons discuss the statue of Caligula that is displayed in the "Roman Art from the Louvre" exhibit at the Indianapolis Museum of Art in Indianapolis in this 2007 file photo.   (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

(Newser) – Dario Del Bufalo, an Italian expert on ancient stone, was signing copies of his book, Prophyry, about the reddish-purple rock favored by Roman emperors when a man flipped to a page showing a priceless Roman mosaic that had vanished during World War II. "'Oh, Helen, look, that's your mosaic,'" the man said to a woman beside him, Del Bufalo recalls in an interview with CBS News. "And she said, 'Yeah, that's my mosaic.'" Del Bufalo's next move was vital in seeing the 4.5-foot-square mosaic—part of the floor of one of two ships on which emperor Caligula is said to have hosted orgies during his reign some 2,000 years ago—returned to Italy for the first time in decades, per the Guardian.

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He says he followed up with the woman who had used the mosaic as a coffee table for the past 45 years. (This was in 2013.) Helen Fioratti, a New York City art dealer and gallery owner, told the New York Times in 2017 that she and her husband had purchased the mosaic, made of porphyry and green and white marble, from an Italian noble family in the 1960s before turning it into a coffee table. "It was an innocent purchase," she said. "It was our favorite thing." But the Manhattan district attorney's office said the mosaic was likely stolen during World War II.

Recovered from Lake Nemi near Rome in the 1930s, it was housed in a museum that the Nazis used as a bomb shelter, then burned in 1944. Fioratti's mosaic had no fire damage, suggesting it had been moved elsewhere. It was seized and returned to Italy in 2017, and is now on display, with much thanks to Del Bufalo. He tells CBS that he hopes to make a replica for Fioratti. "I think my soul would feel a little better." (Read more antiquities stories.)

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