Tuesday 29 January 2008

Operation Ghelas: Some Further Detail

It is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security about the scale of looting. But only last week Lord Renfrew spoke out about the "colossal" scale of the problem. Even in Italy - where it seems like container loads of antiquities have been returned from North American museums, a dealer and even a private collector - the problem has not gone away. A year ago there were signs of a major investigation into a new network, based in Sicily, that was handling antiquities. Cathryn Drake ("Italy awaits biggest ever trial of tomb robbers", The Art Newspaper, no. 187, January 28, 2008) updates the story and has reported that some 70 defendants will be appearing at a preliminary hearing in Gela, Sicily, next month (February 2008). The Italian press has revealed that they come from a wide area across Sicily including Caltanissetta, Enna, Agrigento, Ragusa, Catania, Siracusa (Syracuse) and Palermo. Drake notes,
Alessandro Sutera Sardo, the public prosecutor, says that more than 2,000 antiquities were recovered, such as amphorae, statues, and coins from major archaeological sites in Sicily, including Morgantina, Syracuse, Selinunte, and Gela, as well as in Puglia and Lazio. He said the “four-celled” network of international collaborators distributed stolen antiquities through intermediaries in Switzerland, Germany, Spain, the UK, and the US, including Munich’s Gorny & Mosch auction house.
It was a year ago that the Italian press reported that the investigation went well beyond Sicily and included Calabria, Puglia, Lazio, Abruzzo, Emilia Romagna, Veneto and Lombardia ("Italia: scoperto traffico internazionale reperti antichi, arresti", SDA, January 31, 2007). And the range of antiquities is diverse ("Archeologia: cosi' 'tesori' Sicilia venivano trafugati", ANSA, January 31, 2007):
statuette, vasi, monete, oggetti in bronzo, di epoca e civilta' greca, punica, romana e bizantina ("statuettes, pots, coins, bronze objects, from the Greek, Punic, Roman and Byzantine periods")
The suggestion is that these are not just chance finds but the result of deliberate digging in protected areas ("scavo clandestino in zone protette"). Drake has noted the link with Munich’s Gorny & Mosch auction house that deals with coins and antiquities. And she also discusses the raid on a Barcelona Gallery:
“We went in with the Spanish policemen and found a hidden door. When he opened it we could not believe our eyes: there were hundreds of precious objects, the majority clearly illegal,” Mr Sutera Sardo told us. The most precious object the Sicilian police recognised was an ancient Roman marble basin that had been stolen from a private house in Rome. The gallery owner is being prosecuted in Spain, and the government has formally invited Italy to take back much of the haul.
In addition the Italian press has noted links with a further gallery in Munich, and another in London ("Italian archaeology smugglers uncovered", ANSA, January 31, 2007).
Some of the stolen items were acquired by the Gorny and Mosch auction house in Munich, a company called Athena in the same city, and the Lennox Gallery in London, police sources said. ... in particolare con le societa' d'aste Gorny e Mosch di Monaco di Baviera e dalla Lennox Gallery di Londra. Ma anche con la ditta Athena di Monaco di Baviera.
And to unnerve the market further it appears that forgeries were being created:
During the raids in suspects' apartments on Wednesday [sc. January 2007], police also found evidence that as well as smuggling genuine artefacts they also made false ones to sell. Equipment was discovered which was clearly used to make 'ancient' coins and vases.
And if 2000 items have been recovered, how many have already been sold? Where are they now? And what about the forgeries?

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