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Italian police bust gang trafficking in stolen ancient artefacts

Police forces in four countries on Wednesday seized some 25,000 Greek and Roman archaeological items worth over €40 million in pre-dawn raids, cracking down on illegal trafficking in cultural goods.

Italian police bust gang trafficking in stolen ancient artefacts
An image taken after a different gang was caught smuggling stolen artefacts in 2016. Photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP

Some 250 officers in Italy, Spain, Britain and Germany simultaneously swooped on 40 houses – the culmination of a four-year investigation led by the Italians, the European police agency said.

In Italy, the raids were focused on the regions of Sicily, Calabria, Piedmont, Apulia, in what is considered one of the biggest crackdowns in such crimes “in Italian history”.

In the Sicilian Caltanissetta area, “which is rich in archaeological sites from the Greek and Roman epochs, local members of the organised crime group illegally excavated artefacts,” Europol said.

The items were then smuggled out of Italy, “equipped with false provenances and sold via German auction houses.”

Facilitators in Barcelona and London helped organise the “supply chain” and provided technical support.

Police also seized 1,500 tools including metal detectors in the early morning raids.

“International cooperation is key to the success of such investigations in the field of trafficking of cultural goods, in which artefacts are moved through several EU countries and levels before they are brought to the legal market,” Europol added. 

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CRIME

New York returns millions worth of stolen art to Italy

Prosecutors in New York on Tuesday returned dozens of antiquities stolen from Italy and valued at around $19 million, some of which were found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

New York returns millions worth of stolen art to Italy

“These 58 pieces represent thousands of years of rich history, yet traffickers throughout Italy utilized looters to steal these items and to line their own pockets,” said Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, noting that it was the third such repatriation in nine months.

“For far too long, they have sat in museums, homes, and galleries that had no rightful claim to their ownership,” he said at a ceremony attended by Italian diplomats and law enforcement officials.

The stolen items had been sold to Michael Steinhardt, one of the world’s leading collectors of ancient art, the DA’s office said, adding that he had been slapped with a “first-of-its-kind lifetime ban on acquiring antiquities.”

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Among the recovered treasures, which in some cases were sold to “unwitting collectors and museums,” were a marble head of the Greek goddess Athena from 200 B.C.E. and a drinking cup dating back to 470 B.C.E, officials said.

The pieces were stolen at the behest of four men who “all led highly lucrative criminal enterprises – often in competition with one another – where they would use local looters to raid archaeological sites throughout Italy, many of which were insufficiently guarded,” the DA’s office said.

One of them, Pasquale Camera, was “a regional crime boss who organized thefts from museums and churches as early as the 1960s. He then began purchasing stolen artifacts from local looters and sold them to antiquities dealers,” it added.

It said that this year alone, the DA’s office has “returned nearly 300 antiquities valued at over $66 million to 12 countries.”

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