A strong connection between looting and organized crime in Greece


Police in Greece have announced the arrest of 26 individuals in connection with an antiquities looting network that had been operating for 10 years. The announcement showed the recovery of more than 2,000 objects, including coins, jewelry, and other objects. Two individuals were arrested last Sunday at the Greek-Bulgarian border with an astounding 1,000 coins and small portable objects hidden in the bumper of their car.


Police also confiscated metal detectors, guns, currency, and materials used to counterfeit currency.


The arrests on Sunday were the culmination of a 14-month investigation which may have involved as many as 50 people.

Nicholas Paphitis, Greek police break up gang that excavated, sold antiquities, US News & World Report (Oct. 5, 2016), http://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2016-10-05/greek-police-break-gang-that-sold-thousands-of-antiquities.
Helen Stoilas, Police in Greece arrest 26 in bust of alleged antiquities smuggling ring, http://theartnewspaper.com/news/archeology/police-in-greece-arrest-26-in-bust-of-alleged-antiquities-smuggling-ring/.


The Bost Arch in 1970

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Italy Announces Recovery of 10 Works, Doubled Recovery of Stolen Heritage

The Holy Family, a 16th painting depicting Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus that one expert attributes to Flemish master Hendrick van den Broeck was one of 10 paintings recovered. Italian police have recovered 10 works which were stolen back in 2004. Among the recovered works is this 16th Century painting depicting the holy family attributed ot Hendrick van den Broeck.

Gen. Giovanni Nistri announced the works had a value of $5.3 million USD, noting the works were found in a trailer wrapped in newspaper. The were were stolen in 2004 from “an ancient religious complex in Rome” according to the AP story.

The Culture Ministry also announced today that it had returned over 2,000 antiquities to Bulgaria, many of which were coins.

Nistri also announced that works totaling $243 million had been recovered in 2008, more than double the amount recovered the year before. Also noted in a Bloomberg account: “The number of known illegal digs in Italy last year increased by 15 percent to 238, mostly in the area around Rome, the Carabinieri police said.” It seems most of this increase was due to the increased policing of unauthorized archaeological digs (which we might just call looting). How has Italy found the resources or will to increase its efforts? Perhaps its new heritage advisor Mario Resca, profiled in today’s Wall Street Journal has some ideas on how to earn revenue from this heritage.

Whether Resca is the man to make the necessary changes remains to be seen, but he:

points in particular to Pompeii — Italy’s most popular site with 2.6 million visitors in 2007 — where littering, looting and the dilapidation of 2,000-year-old buildings and frescoes prompted the government this summer to declare a “state of emergency.” His concerns extend beyond conservation to issues of marketing and service.

Preserving this massive body of heritage is a difficult undertaking, and I touched on the difficulties at Pompei briefly here, but just because Resca is an outsider does not necessarily mean his ideas will be bad. In fact many of his suggestions have been floated before.

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The Long Shadow of the Parthenon

Michael Liapis, Greek Minister of Culture, gave the opening remarks at the conference on “Return of Cultural Property to its Country of Origin”. He managed to get a good deal of press coverage, including a Reuters story.

Unfortunately I found his comments unhelpful, as did David Gill. He attempts to link the Greek quest for the return of the Parthenon marbles from the British Museum and elsewhere with the decisions by the Getty, the Met, and the MFA in Boston to return relatively recent and looted antiquities. The two claims could not be more different. One can be characterized as a historical dispute, while the others are examples of clear wrongful conduct, many of which involved criminal wrongdoing.

Liapis argues “More and more museums are adopting tighter ethics codes and governments promote bilateral and international cooperation (for the return of ancient objects)… So an ideal momentum is being created … for clear solutions on this issue.”

Gill responds, quite rightly, that the major difference between these two claims is context. We know where the Parthenon Marbles came from, we have their context. In fact one can see the context from the new Parthenon Museum, pictured here. However we don’t know for sure where many of the looted antiquities which were returned in recent years came from. Their context is lost to us. He follows this up by asking a pointed question in return, will Greece take steps to return Bulgarian silver from the Pazardzhik Byzantine Silver Hoard?

Others have perhaps said this more persuasively than I, but I think cultural policymakers only make the situation worse when they link historical events such as Lord Elgin’s removal of the marbles with recent criminal activity on a widespread scale. There may be a persuasive claim for the return of the marbles to Athens, however such a claim is not likely to succeed by making such unhelpful comparisons.

The closer link is with the Bulgarian silver, which it seems Greek’s legal system is unable to adequately return to Bulgaria.

On an unrelated note, the Acropolis museum, where this event is being held was reviewed by Richard Lacayo.

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Antiquities Problems in Bulgaria

Malcolm Moore has an excellent article in the Telegraph on antiquities smuggling in Bulgaria. Don’t miss the excellent slideshow.

Not a lot is written about antiquities smuggling there, but perhaps more work needs to be done, as Bulgaria is behind only Greece and Italy in terms of antiquities in its soil. Bulgaria has taken the approach of most source nations and declared an ownership interest in undiscovered antiquities. As I’ve argued, those declarations do very little of their own accord. A comprehensive policy and education of the public is needed, as has been done successfully in most of the UK with the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

A police spokesperson, Volodia Velkov estimated that tomb raiding generates £4 billion per year for organized crime. That number seems a bit inflated, but there is no way to make a definitive accounting. This Thracian gold vase would be worth a few pounds surely. Just last week a man was arrested smuggling 100 objects to Germany worth £345,000.

Mr. Velkov says “Since last October, when we started the new department, we have seized 16,000 artefacts,… More than 30,000 people are involved in tomb-raiding. The business is very well-organized and the expeditions are financed by rich Bulgarians living in the US, Britain and Germany…The main route is through Germany, where there are huge warehouses full of our antiquities,…”.

One approach may be to license private collectors. Archaeologist Nokolai Ovcharov says “The government cannot afford to excavate all the sites itself. So they should give out concessions and carry out rigorous checks on what is found. The longer it takes to pass a new law, the more treasure we will lose.”

That seems to be the only solution available short of eliminating the antiquities trade completely, or requiring comprehensive provenance research. Until that happens, expect more looting from Bulgaria.

(hat tip to David Gill)

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com