Copyright 2002 Source: PR Newswire

[ January 20th 2002 ]

Say Italian 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.

The general 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."

The global 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.

The Etruscan 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.

One pair 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," Conforti said.

France, 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.

The fake 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.

Such 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.

Not even 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 task.

"Until 1985 we were the only country with a police force dedicated to combating the illicit art 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.

The tombaroli, 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.

Many 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.

But with 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 patrimony."

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