After a catastrophic week for its prized art collections, Italy is celebrating the recovery of five frescoed stone slabs stolen from the ancient city of Paestum, which went on display in Rome on Thursday (26 November).

Dating from around 300 BC, the frescoes were removed from ancient tombs in Paestum near Naples during an illegal dig in the 1990s. Paestum was originally founded by the ancient Greeks and boasts hundreds of ancient tomb sites.The frescoes depict a noble lady and her slave girls, a warrior on horseback and a young armed man walking with a donkey. According to Paestum site director, Gabriel Zuchtriegel, they offer a valuable insight into aristocratic life in the 4th century BC.

Cracks across the face of each stone slab are an unhappy reminder of where the tomb raiders cut them in half to facilitate smuggling after ripping them from the tomb walls.

Experts had not even been aware of the slabs’ existence prior to the theft. This is not the first time tomb raiders have excavated archaeological treasures from ancient sites in Italy before experts have had a chance to discover them. Unfortunately, the clandestine nature of their activities means vital clues are lost. The location of the tomb from which the Paestum slabs were removed remains unknown. The director of the site, Gabriel Zuchtriegel, described the “devastating” impact of illicit digs on archaeology:

“I invite you to appreciate the beauty of this tomb, but also to reflect on this illicit business and the market that creates opportunities for it.”

The Italian Carabinieri searched for the frescoed slabs during a decade-long investigation sparked by the death of an international artefacts trafficker. Known as “the Captain”, he was killed in a road traffic accident in 1995. Rummaging through the wreckage of the crashed car, police uncovered hundreds of photos of stolen artefacts. They discovered even more photographs as well as stolen relics at “the Captain’s” house.

Using the photographs, the police were able to compile a catalogue of trafficked works, which they then identified in dealers’ collections. After a 10 year search, the frescoed slabs were eventually found in a warehouse belonging to a Swiss businessman in Como and brought to Rome. According to police official Mariano Mossa, the slabs had been purchased by the Swiss collector “in good faith” for €1 million (£700,000).

The scourge of the illegal trade in stolen antiquities is a source of great anxiety for the art world and beyond. For Italy at least, the exhibition of the recovered frescoes provides a happy ending to an otherwise unhappy week.

The slabs will go on display in Paestum from 10 January.