Antiques enthusiasts know that every piece has a story. But when one art dealer affixed an ancient Roman mosaic to her swanky coffee table, she had no way of knowing its backstory—a story that starts with Roman Emperor Caligula. So, how did Caligula’s mosaic end up in a Park Avenue living room? That’s the question asked in a recent episode of 60 Minutes, which is embedded in this CBS News article.
In the episode, we learn that the mosaic in question is roughly four square feet, made with marble and purple-red porphyry, a type of decorative rock that was popular among Roman emperors. The mosaic was reportedly part of an inlaid floor in one of the “gigantic and extravagant party ships” commissioned by the famously depraved emperor, Caligula. When Caligula was assassinated in A.D. 41, his ships were sunk in the middle of Lake Nemi, located southeast of Rome.
There, the mosaic laid on the lake’s mud floor, lost to history—until 1895, when divers started resurfacing relics from the sunken ships. In the 1930s, dictator Benito Mussolini commissioned a museum for the relics, including the salvaged mosaic. Unfortunately, during World War II, Nazis used the museum as a bomb shelter, allegedly setting fire to the building in 1944.
While this particular mosaic floor tile made it through unscathed, it disappeared after the war. That is, until one historian included a photo of the tile in a book he published in 2013. CBS News reports that he ran into someone who recognized the mosaic during a lecture and book signing at the Manhattan Bulgari jewelry store.
“There was a lady with a young guy with a strange hat that came to the table,” the researcher told CBS News. “And he told her, ‘What a beautiful book. Oh, Helen, look, that’s your mosaic.’ And she said, ‘Yeah, that’s my mosaic.’”
Turns out, the mosaic adorned the woman’s coffee table at her Park Avenue home. The woman in question is art dealer Helen Fioratti, who told The New York Times in 2017 that she and her husband had bought the piece from an Italian noble family in the 1960s. They affixed it to a base and turned it into the world’s fanciest coffee table—that is, until investigators seized the mosaic and returned it to the Italian government. Turns out, the mosaic had at some point been stolen from its resting place in the museum.
This is certainly the most exciting saga involving a coffee table the world has ever seen. At least, I think so—a recent red wine catastrophe is the most exciting thing that’s happened on my coffee table. For more details, make sure to read the full CBS News article and check out the 60 Minutes spot here.