A Roman mosaic dating back to Emperor Caligula had somehow, reportedly, found its way into an art dealer’s Park Avenue apartment, where for the last 45 years it held up cups of coffee for her and her guests.
For decades, Helen Fioratti—so the story goes—owned the opulent, colored-stone piece after it went missing from a Nemi museum in Italy. Roman architect Dario Del Bufalo, 63, who specializes in the study of ancient stone queries, had only a photo from the 1950s depicting the mosaic to publish in his book on porphyry. But he explained how an unlikely encounter at a Bulgari store on Fifth Avenue led to the mosaic’s rediscovery.
In 2015, Del Bufalo was lecturing and signing copies of his book at the luxury jewelry store when he overheard a woman commenting on the aforementioned photo while flipping through his book. “A couple of guys and an old lady came by and started moving the pages,” Del Bufalo told The Epoch Times. “At one point, they said, ‘Oh, look! This is your mosaic.’ And the lady said, ‘Yes, that’s my mosaic.’”
Seizing the opportunity, he caught up with one of the fellas who divulged that the woman’s name is “Helen,” that for decades she’d been using the ancient Roman floor piece as a coffee table in her apartment, and her building was 555 Park Avenue.
Given the mosaic’s prime importance in the Museum of the Roman Ships in Nemi, Del Bufalo, accompanied by a lawyer from the DA’s office on behalf of the Italian government, paid the art dealer and gallery owner a visit in hopes of retrieving the lost artifact.
“The problem was that she had no documents, no information, no nothing,” Del Bufalo explained. “The attorney said, ‘Okay, do you have a receipt, do you have an invoice? … She said, ‘No, I don’t have it.’”
She’d bought the mosaic from an Italian noble family in the 1960s, the New York Times reported in 2017, then handed it off to her Italian ambassador friend who, handling logistics, “smuggled it” to New York on her behalf. Hearing this, “the district attorney was very, very, mad,” Del Bufalo said, and threatened to have her arrested.
Thusly was the mosaic-turned-coffee table confiscated. And in March 2021 (stains removed), it was unveiled in Nemi.
Some 2,000 years ago, the colored marble piece had once decorated one of two enormous luxury flatbed barges commissioned by Emperor Caligula as venues for his extravagantly decadent parties on Lake Nemi. Despite conflicting accounts and looming questions, historians have named Caligula (great-great-grandson of Julius Caser) an “unpredictable tyrant”—even “deranged.” His life and reign were also short-lived; in A.D. 41, just four years crowned, he was assassinated at age 28.
His “barges of debauchery” were massive in size, spanning 230 feet wide by 240 feet long. Upon sinking, they carried with them artifacts—including marble columns, lead pipe for running water, and colorful mosaics with “psychedelic” patterns—to a watery grave beneath Lake Nemi, only to be dredged up some 1,900 years later.
In the 1930s, the Caligula-obsessed Mussolini drained the lake to extract the remains and housed them in the lakeside museum, established in 1939, which was later burned following the retreat of the Nazis, who’d used it as a bomb shelter. Yet, unmarred by fire, the mosaic is believed to have vanished before then.
As for Helen and her lost refreshment furnishing, Del Bufalo said he felt bad confiscating it but scoffs that it might be “priceless,” as some have claimed. He estimates a value in the neighborhood of $300,000–400,000 and denies that someone offered her $1 million for the mosaic. He nevertheless added, “I was so sorry for her that it happened because of my book,” and he offered to give her an exact replica in recompense.
“She didn’t reply,” he told the Newspaper. “She didn’t want it, she didn’t want to talk.”