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US woman returns ancient Roman marble with letter of apology

Angela Giuffrida in Rome
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Franco Origlia/Getty Images

When the management of the National Roman Museum received a bulky package sent from overseas, they were not expecting to find inside a fragment of ancient marble inscribed with the message: “To Sam, love Jess, Rome 2017.”

Accompanying the relic was a letter from a young woman, called Jess, seeking forgiveness “for being such an American asshole”. She went on to say that she took something that was not “rightfully mine”, and was returning it.

“I feel terrible for not only stealing this item from its rightful place, but placing writing on it,” she wrote. “It was a big mistake on my part and only now, as an adult, do I realise just how thoughtless and despicable it was.”

Jess said she tried to scrub off the message, written with a black marker pen, but to no avail.

She is the latest tourist to repent after pilfering an artefact from an Italian cultural site. In October, a Canadian woman called Nicole sent back fragments stolen from the ancient city of Pompeii 15 years ago, claiming they were “cursed”.

In September 2020, an Irish tourist was arrested for allegedly carving his initials on a pillar of the Colosseum. Such an offence could carry a hefty fine or up to a year in prison. 

In June 2020, an Austrian tourist broke the toes of a sculpture by the neoclassical artist Antonio Canova at a museum in Treviso after sitting on it to take a photo. After police tracked the man down, he apologised and offered to pay to restore the work.

In 2016, a woman who took sand from Budelli, an island off Sardinia famous for its pink sandy beach, returned it after 29 years alongside a confessional letter.

In 2015, a brick taken from the Pompeii ruins in 1958 was put up for sale on eBay.

It is unclear where exactly the piece of marble was taken from, but it could have been the site of the Roman Forum, which was the political heart of the Roman empire.

Stéphane Verger, the director of the National Roman Museum, told Il Messaggero newspaper that the package was sent from Atlanta, Georgia.

“From its tone we imagine it was a young woman,” he said. “In 2017 she must have come to Rome, and took this fragment of marble in order to gift it to her boyfriend. It made an impact on me precisely because she is young – she understood that she had made a mistake.”

The incident has left the museum’s management wondering if Jess was encouraged to return the artefact after hearing about Nicole’s widely reported story.

Nicole sent a package containing two mosaic tiles, parts of an amphora and a piece of ceramic to a travel agent in Pompeii, in southern Italy, alongside a letter of confession. She was in her early 20s when she visited the archaeological park in 2005 and blamed the theft for a run of misfortune that had befallen her since, including having breast cancer twice and experiencing financial hardship.

“Who knows,” said Verger. “Maybe she did hear about the Canadian woman. The year 2020, decimated by the Covid pandemic, has made people reflect, as well as moved the conscience. The fact is that three years after the theft, she returned it – it’s a very important symbolic gesture.”

Verger said the marble originated from the quarries of Asia Minor. Jess had prepared the package with care ensuring the relic would arrive safely. “The letter accompanying it was quite moving,” he said.