Operation Demetra and familiar names

The Aidone goddess, likely depicting the Earth goddess Demeter at the Archaeological Museum in Aidone.

Police in Spain, Germany, the United Kingdom, and Italy have announced arrests in a four year investigation named Operation Demetra. The name for the investigation has a bit of history, which it may be worth remembering. Demeter, the ancient Greek Earth goddess was likely depicted in the notorious Getty goddess. The Getty mistakenly referred to her as Aphrodite.

As many of you likely know, the story of this and other illicit acquisitions by the Getty, and the tax fraud perpetrated to pay for much of this is described in the terrific book, Chasing Aphrodite. In a nutshell: The statue was first smuggled from Morgantina. Looters broke her into pieces, and it was acquired by the Getty in 1988 for $18 million. While at the Getty, it was described as the finest classical piece of sculpture in North America, perhaps even outside of the Mediterranean and Europe.  She was brazenly referred to for a while as the Getty Goddess, before ultimately being returned to the small archaeological museum at Aidone after evidence of the statue’s theft and connection to organized crime groups in Sicily helped build a case for return. Aidone and this part of Sicily are covered in wheat fields, the choice of using Demeter for a codename, goddess of the Earth and the wheat harvest was certainly intentional.

These objects were likely looted from archaeological sites in Sicily, and the investigation recovered an astounding 25,000 objects including coins, statues, and pottery fragments.

One of the individuals arrested was Thomas William Veres in London, a man of Hungarian origin antiques dealer who has long been involved in trafficking illicit material from Sicily to other parts of Europe and abroad. Police told reporters that:

The London art merchant Thomas William Veres commanded a transnational criminal holding that was able to traffic considerable quantities of Sicilian archaeological artifacts . . .

He was prominently featured in a case of another Sicilian antiquity, the Gold Phiale case. In 1991 Veres helped transport an ancient Greek Phiale (plate) to Switzerland where it was sold to Michael Steinhardt for $1.2 million. Veres was referred to by Federal prosecutors as a Swiss art dealer. Veres and another art dealer, Robert Haber, revealed how little faith they had in the licitness of the gold plate when in the purchase agreement with Steinhardt thy agreed that:

If the object is confiscated or impounded by customs agents or a claim is made by any country or governmental agency whatsoever, full compensation will be made immediately to the purchaser.

Steinhardt’s customs agent failed to accurately disclose the purchase price and the location of the plate, which ended up setting an important precedent for customs forfeitures and the use of civil forfeiture by Federal prosecutors in the United States for securing the return of illicit material.

It likely came as no surprise then to many who follow the antiquities trade that the name William Veres appeared in the news reports of arrests stemming from Operation Demetra. That investigation reveals a massive looting, smuggling, and counterfeit operation involving the movement of authentic and inauthentic material across borders, where histories were fabricated, and sales routinely took place.

John Phillips & Justin Huggler, Italian Police Smash £30m International Ancient Artefact Smuggling Ring, The Telegraph, Jul. 4, 2018, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/07/04/italian-police-smash-40m-international-ancient-artefact-smuggling/.

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