When the Italian prosecutor Paolo Giorgio Ferri visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2004, he posed for an image beside an historical terra cotta mixing bowl so uncommon and celebrated that it had held delight of place within the Met’s Greek and Roman galleries for 32 years.
Four years later, because of this of Mr. Ferri’s dogged work as an investigator and antiquities hunter with Rome’s Ministry of Cultural Heritage, that object, often called the Euphronios krater, was again on Italian soil, as had been scores of different looted treasures that had been acquired by American museums and collectors for the reason that 1960s.
Mr. Ferri, who had not too long ago retired after 45 years as a judicial Justice of the Peace, public prosecutor and authorized advisor, died on June 14 at a hospital in Rome. He was 72.
His household stated the trigger was a coronary heart assault.
Colleagues say his legacy contains dismantling multinational looting and trafficking rings; recovering tens of hundreds of Greco-Roman artifacts from secret storehouses; and compelling what is typically referred to as “the great giveback,” a interval that started in 2006 and continues to this present day, throughout which American museums have returned at least 120 ill-gotten antiquities valued at greater than $1 billion to the Greek and Italian authorities.
“No one before him had used the courts to attack the art predators and big museums and corrupt dealers,” stated Fabio Isman, his friend and biographer. “He was very stubborn, and what he did was very daring.”
In an email interview with The New York Times last year, Mr. Ferri said he did not know what to expect in 1994 when he began investigating the theft of a statue from a villa in Rome and its sudden appearance at a Sotheby’s auction in London. After much digging, he said, he discovered that a dozen prominent American museums housed Roman and Etruscan items that Italian officials never knew existed. His list eventually grew to 47 museums worldwide.
“It took several years to have a complete panorama of what happened to the Italian cultural patrimony,” Mr. Ferri said. “When I was fully aware of the damages caused by the criminals, I was really furious.”
As the public prosecutor in Rome, overseeing criminal cases for the Italian Ministry of Culture, he embarked on what turned out to be a 17-year period of subpoenas, raids, arrests and trials. After a “steep learning curve,” he said, he also started working with the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan to press his investigation into American museums and art brokers.
His big breakthrough came in September 1995, when he arranged for the Italian and Swiss police to raid a building run by a renowned Italian art dealer, Giacomo Medici. The building sat inside the Geneva Free Port, a sprawling commercial district where international goods can be stored, purchased and sold with virtually no oversight, and often free of taxes and duties.
Their haul was astonishing. Investigators found thousand of pieces of Greek, Roman and Etruscan art; binders filled with sales records and letters between Mr. Medici and dealers and curators in London and New York; and hundreds of annotated Polaroid photographs of objects that had clearly been pillaged.
The photos showed pitchers and vases, stone busts and burial relics, bronze statues of animals and gods, and other black-market objects. The items were still encrusted with soil from when they had been dug up, and the notations on the pictures indicated their origins. There were even follow-up images of the items after they had been cleaned and restored and made ready for the art market.
“When I first saw it,” Mr. Ferri recalled, “I compared the Medici warehouse to Ali Baba’s cave.” Indeed, among the Medici Polaroids were images of the Met’s 2,500-year-old krater, which is decorated with scenes from “The Iliad” by a master Greek artist named Euphronios.
The discovery of the so-called Medici archive precipitated a string of raids, trials and legal claims that exposed two more major antiquities traffickers: Gianfranco Becchina, an Italian art broker, and Robin Symes, a London fine arts dealer. Both were found to have immense troves of looted Greco-Roman items — Mr. Becchina in Basel, Switzerland, and Mr. Symes on the remote Greek island of Schinoussa — and both had kept dossiers detailing where the objects originated and to whom they had been sold.
Mr. Ferri convicted Mr. Medici in 2004 in one of many cases he brought against an expanding network of antiquities smugglers. He also made a bold move that rattled the American art world: He indicted two prominent museum figures, the curator Marion True and the collector and dealer Robert E. Hecht Jr., for trafficking in Medici’s looted art.
Paparazzi photos of Ms. True, the longtime antiquities curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, being swarmed outside a Rome courthouse were widely published amid allegations that she had illegally acquired dozens of objects for the Getty. (Ms. True has long denied the charges and said her case was a show trial.)
Mr. Hecht was accused of purchasing the Euphronios krater directly from Mr. Medici knowing it was plunder, and of manufacturing an innocent background story before selling it to the Met for $1 million in 1972.
Although Mr. Ferri’s charges against Mr. Hecht (who died in 2012) and Ms. True were dismissed under statutes of limitations in 2010 and 2012, they had alarmed American museum directors, who had never seen criminal charges brought against those individuals entrusted with obtaining their antiquities.
From 2006 to 2011, the Met returned 20 Roman objects in addition to the krater, the Getty gave back 47, and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston repatriated 13. Museums in Dallas, Cleveland and Toledo, Ohio, also gave up Greco-Roman objects, as did merchants like the Royal Athena Gallery in New York and collectors like the philanthropist Shelby White.
Italian officials continue to pursue scores of items they recognize from the looters’ dossiers whenever auction houses and dealers put them on the market.
“Paolo Ferri opened a road, and we hope it will not be abandoned,” Mr. Isman said.
Paolo Giorgio Ferri was born in Rome on Oct. 17, 1947. He earned his undergraduate and law degrees from Sapienza University of Rome and became a judge magistrate in 1977 and a public prosecutor a decade later. By the early 1990s, his interest in classical history had led him to a position with the Cultural Ministry, which was beginning to tackle the scourge of antiquities crime. He remained in that role for the next 20 years.
Mr. Ferri is survived by his wife, Marita, and a daughter, Sofia. Friends said he had recently renovated a seafront apartment in the Sardinian city of Alghero and hoped to spend his time scuba diving and spearfishing.
In his interview with The Times, Mr. Ferri said he was gladdened that colleagues were continuing the hunt for plundered objects showcasing classical Rome’s glory and sophistication. But he was also wistful.
“The few refunds that have occurred concern perhaps 3 percent of what was taken,” he said. “They have above all just a symbolic value.”
Fabiana Di Fazio contributed reporting from Rome.