BACK THE TOMB RAIDERS
Copyright 2002 www.tombraiderchronicles.com Source:
[ January 20th 2002 ]
crime and Mafia dons in shades and sharp suits
may spring to mind. The words Tomb raider evoke
computer game heroine Lara Croft, searching for
secrets in a dark dungeon. But the reality of
Italian tomb-raiding is black-market art dealers
plundering the country's vast artistic riches,
and a headache for Carabinieri General Roberto
Conforti, even if he is known as "the 007 of art"
after secret agent James Bond.
and his 250-strong force have to protect not only
the Michelangelos and Giottos of Italy, but 96,500
churches, hundreds of archaeological sites and
many more ancient ruins and tombs that have yet
to be uncovered. "Stolen art is a significant
problem in Italy simply due to the size of our
cultural heritage," said the stocky, grey-haired
general while strolling through an exhibition
of 400 recovered antiquities on display in the
Italian capital. "And it's not just a problem
of commercial value. For us the historical value
is almost more important."
black market in stolen art and antiquities generates
about $9.5 billion a year, making it the world's
biggest illicit trade after arms and drugs, according
to Insurance Day, an international insurance publication.
Italy and France are the two main targets, together
accounting for more than 12,000 stolen art pieces
every year. "Unfortunately there are more than
a few collectors," said Conforti, a 65-year-old,
veteran cop who makes television appearances every
time there is a big bust of art smuggling rings.
statues, Roman pottery and ancient bronze jewelry
and surgical instruments currently on show at
Rome's Castel Sant' Angelo, a former fortress,
provide a glimpse of Italy's rich artistic heritage
and the wily ways of its robbers.
of third century marble sarcophagi decorated with
chubby cherubs turned up as flower beds in an
Italian mansion while a set of delicate rust-red
and black vases from 590-570 BC were dug up on
order by a smuggling ring run by a dealer known
only as Alex. "The vases then appeared at a French
antiquities museum owned by that very same Alex,"
Britain and Japan are all big markets for stolen
art, often unwittingly, but the United States
is by far the biggest dealer in what goes missing
most often from Italy - looted archaeological
artifacts. And they don't just disappear into
private collections. The artifacts often circulate
for years to build up a false paper trail and
most make a pit-stop in Switzerland where it is
relatively easy to register antiquities and to
"create" a place of origin, Conforti says.
papers have duped even the most respected buyers
with hundreds of looted Roman, Greek and Etruscan
artifacts ending up in museums like the J. Paul
Getty in Los Angeles and in top auction houses
like New York-based Sotheby's.
was the fate of a Roman statue of Diana the Hunting
Goddess which was returned to Italy last year.
Gravediggers stumbled across the first century
sculpture and shipped it to Switzerland. After
trading hands it was eventually sold to a U.S.
collector for several million dollars. "Italy,
being a major culture base for antiquities and
for fine art, is logically a major source for
the world black market," said Malcolm Kenwood,
recoveries director at the British-based Art Loss
Register, the world's largest private database
of lost and stolen art.
Italy's most celebrated sites are sacred. Statues
and even six frescos have disappeared from Pompeii,
the ancient Roman city preserved for eternity
by volcanic ash from an eruption of Mount Vesuvius
in 79 AD. But Conforti believes he is up to the
1985 we were the only country with a police force
dedicated to combating the illicit art trade...so
it is a phenomenon we are beginning to control,"
he said, adding that in 2000 about half of the
art reported stolen was recovered. A lot of art
is stolen from churches, some from museums and
private collectors, but most is stolen by the
'gravediggers,"' Conforti said.
or gravediggers, move into action once the sun
has set. They break into churches, tunnel into
sites or go hunting for undiscovered tombs and
extract priceless artifacts. While a few robbers
use metal detectors, most rely on pick and shovel
and a thin spike that they stab deep into the
ground looking for the tell-tale soft spot that
denotes an ancient burial site. "The problem isn't
just the stolen art, it's the destruction of the
context in which the antiquities are found," said
Germana Aprato, the director of exhibitions at
Castel Sant' Angelo.
ceramics are shattered during the pillaging and
the tombs are left in disarray. According to Interpol
very few antiquities are ever found since many
of the robberies of "undiscovered" sites go unreported.
Worldwide, only two percent of antiquities are
ever recovered, compared to 51 percent of stolen
paintings and eight percent of sculptures.
specialized art police now in France, Spain, England
and Germany and with other countries like Guatemala
and Pakistan preparing forces, things are looking
up, Conforti believes. "More and more countries
are showing sensitivity," he said. "Even Afghanistan
is investigating and looking for its cultural