Community in Spain works to recover ancient Roman mosaic that ended up in New York | Culture

Like most 1970s baby boomers who grew up in Vigo, a city in northwestern Spain, Galicia, Gonzalo Fernández-Turégano spent long hours gazing at black-and-white photographs of a large book with greenish covers titled Vigo in its history (Vigo in his story). This kid, born in 1976 and now a lawyer, banking executive and art lover based in Madrid, spent his time with his aunt and uncle turning the pages of the 676-page volume; however, time and time again, he found himself stuck – or rather captivated – between pages 49 and 53. It was there that a red mullet and a couple of clams represented with tesserae tiles waited. The animals floated on an ocean floor represented by water flies, the same symbol (overlapping lines, with a kind of mustache at one end) found in other Iberian mosaics with a marine theme. The text that accompanied the image of the Roman mosaic of Panxón included explanations from archaeologist Fernando Acuña Castroviejo, who had researched the origins of the piece.

According to this specialist, at some point before 1850, a family named Puga who lived in the municipality of Nigrán, accidentally discovered this vestige of the 3rd century while working on their property by the sea; the mosaic was much larger, but the Pugas only saved one piece from destruction by ordering a Roman-style scissor table to encase it. Then they sold the piece of furniture to collector Ricardo Blanco Cicero. More than a century later, in 2000, the piece reappeared at Castellana Subastas, an auction house in Madrid. There it was bought by a Danish bidder and by 2012 the mosaic had already crossed the Atlantic from London and was in the Carlton Hobbs Gallery in New York. But in Galicia, people had lost track. Until 2018, that is, when after examining the online catalogs of art houses, Fernández-Turégano found before his eyes the solemn fish and clams from his childhood book.

“I saw it by chance, it was for sale”, says the rediscoverer of this jewel. “During a trip to New York, I made an appointment to see it. Carlton Hobbs had no idea of ​​its origin, although Carlos Picón, then curator of Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum, identified as a 3rd century Lusitanian mosaic. I said I was interested in repatriating it, and he said that if the intention was to display it, he would be willing to lower the price, $75,000 at $58,000.

After that, a group of locals and people emotionally connected to Nigrán – a seaside resort south of Vigo – formed the Association for the Repatriation of the Roman Mosaic of Panxón. Fernández-Turégano is first vice-president; her aunt, retired doctor Pilar Pérez Saavedra, is president; and history professor Gustavo Pascual is the second vice-president. Other supporters of the drive to bring back the mosaic include sailors like Diego Torrado, cultural officials and professional surfers like Gony Zubizarreta. In October 2020, this citizen collective signed a reserve agreement with Stefanie Rinza, manager of the Carlton Hobbs gallery, and dealer specializing in furniture from the European aristocracy of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The gallery has undertaken not to sell the Galician mosaic to anyone for two years (that is, until next October), giving the association time to raise funds.

Town of Panxón (Nigrán), with the port and buildings attached to where the mosaic was found.Association for the Repatriation of the Roman Mosaic of Panxón

The group launched a crowdfunding campaign, and at the same time succeeded in obtaining the commitment of the city council of Nigrán, led by a mayor with a degree in art history, the socialist Juan González. The board approved a contribution of €40,000; the rest should be collected by the association. As stated in the association’s charter, as soon as the piece arrived in Galicia, it would be handed over to the Nigrán Council, which would guarantee its conservation and exhibition in a museum devoted to the evident – and still unexplored – Roman past of Panxón.

In late August, the group announced that the crowdfunding goal had been met, but lamented the lack of fresh news about the city’s contribution to the cause. “All that remains is to sign the agreement by which the association would donate the piece to the city council… We hope to arrive in time so that the table does not end up decorating a ranch in Texas!” said Fernández-Turégano, looking worried. “Our job was to ignite the spark and then step away to quietly move into the background. We leave the glory of cutting the ribbon to the politicians. We guess the mayor, who knows the art, will like to go down in history as the chief who returned the mosaic to Nigrán. Carlton Hobbs and Stefanie Rinza have been very generous, and we can’t let them down now.”

Roman mosaic inlaid into a 19th century table in the home of collector and art dealer Carlton Hobbs.
Roman mosaic inlaid into a 19th century table in the home of collector and art dealer Carlton Hobbs. Gonzalo Fernandez-Turegano.

Ancient pottery caught in the bay

A 19th-century manuscript cited by Acuña Castroviejo stated that the Panxón mosaic was originally much larger. The preserved fragment (a square measuring 80 cm on a side) is only a corner of a scene in which – according to the text – there were also kinds of forts or “castles” and “characters”. But the mosaic was “teared down”, he said. At the site of the discovery – an idyllic, rocky, wave-battered hill that separates two beaches and overlooks the port of Panxón – no one has ever excavated to confirm what the name of this place, O Castro (or The Hillfort), insists on revealing. On the contrary: despite the exposed mosaic and the defensive moats that can be seen where the grass now grows, the pre-Roman and Roman past of the place was confined by buildings, a maritime club and a cement breakwater.

A few meters from O Castro, a Roman pottery workshop, an altar dedicated to Mercury (the god of commerce) and several small amphorae that floated on the surface clinging to fishing gear emerged – also by chance. The mosaic is linked to a water-related installation inside what could have been a Roman villa or a marine resource exploitation factory. “Panxón has not resisted the onslaught of urban growth and its acropolis has been modified by real estate development”, laments Gustavo Pascual in the report on the Roman mosaic published on the association’s website. “The urban pressure in the region (…) was so strong that it affected natural areas and many archaeological sites.”