The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has offered these thieves new opportunities to raid closed archeological sites, churches and museums for priceless artifacts while police are reassigned to enforce lockdowns.
“This uptick can be attributed in part to the coronavirus lockdown and downturn in economies in many parts of the world,” she said via email. “The combination of police pre-occupation with the crisis coupled with job losses due to lockdown are making the problem worse.”
Italy’s ‘tomb raiders’ are capitalizing on the pandemic
Arthur Brand, one of Europe’s foremost art detectives and author of “Hitler’s Horses: The Incredible True Story of the Detective who Infiltrated the Nazi Underworld,” told CNN that at least 50% of ancient Roman artifacts on the market today are stolen. He said there are “hundreds of thousands of tomb raiders working all over the world,” with the term “tombaroli” used to describe thieves looting artifacts from any type of site, not just tombs.
“Some are farmers and some are metal detector owners, but most are professional,” he said, adding that “it’s easier to dig in the ground to win the lottery” than to buy a winning lottery ticket.
At first glance, Largo di Torre Argentina square in central Rome seems dull compared to the obvious splendors of Italy’s capital. A taxi stand butts up against one side of a graffiti-covered fence surrounding sunken ruins. The city’s light-rail system rumbles past the other side.
But 3 meters (10 feet) below street level, columns are scattered like children’s toys around the place where Julius Caesar was betrayed by his allies and brutally murdered in 44 B.C. The site of what was perhaps the most infamous assassination in the history of the Roman Empire — including the ruins of four temples dating back to the 3rd century B.C. — is now reduced to a traffic obstacle.
It is easy to see how cunning thieves could have access to Italy’s treasures. The ruins witness frequent arrests, as tourists and others can easily jump down without detection. It is believed to be one of Rome’s most pilfered sites, even though many of most of the important objects, including vases and statues, were taken years ago.
Without these private donations, many sites across the country would fall into greater disarray, and Italy’s cultural ministry works to forge partnerships with companies looking for monuments to sponsor.
Money to be made
The Carabinieri Art Squad is a special branch of Italian law enforcement dedicated to the protection of cultural heritage. Its officers are among the first to secure museums and churches after natural disasters, like earthquakes. But they spend most of their time chasing tombaroli and recovering stolen art.
“We note that tomb raiding is a profession intertwined in families, and passed down from father to son to keep the trade alive,” the squad’s commander, General Roberto Riccardi, told CNN. “They are active in all areas where there are archeological treasures.”
Tomb raiders reside at the lowest level of the trafficking food chain, police say, because they make the least money and take the greatest risks if they get caught. But the items they acquire may find their way up to the world’s wealthiest people.
In May, reality star and influencer Kim Kardashian was named in a lawsuit alleging she purchased part of an illegally smuggled Roman statue: the lower half of Myron’s Samian Athena. The statue dates back to the 1st or 2nd century and was seized by US Customs and Border protection with a cache of 40 other pieces valued at around $745,000, according to court documents.
In May, reality star and influencer Kim Kardashian was named in a lawsuit alleging she purchased part of an illegally smuggled Roman statue. Credit: Department of Justice
Over the centuries, Roman artifacts have been unearthed not only through sponsored archeological digs and illegal tomb raiding, but also urban development, according to Italy’s cultural ministry. In Rome, efforts to expand the city’s underground transportation system have been delayed and diverted, sometimes for years, as new discoveries are made. Some of the unearthed artifacts end up being put on display in the new Metro stations.
In Italy, construction sites are often legally required to have archeologists on hand. It is their responsibility to determine whether items found while laying cables or fixing sewer systems are worth digging out or — as is often the case — should be left alone, in case someone later has the funds to excavate the area properly.
But these ancient artifact graveyards are a temptation for tombaroli lurking over construction fences and clandestinely rooting for treasure on the fringes of digs.
Forensic archaeologist Stefano Alessandrini, who has advised Italy’s Justice and Culture Ministries on the repatriation of stolen antiquities, has been involved in countless negotiations to return illegally acquired art and artifacts from museums like the Getty in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
More than 350 items of importance have been returned to Italy from North American museums since True’s trial, according to Riccardi, the Carabinieri Art Squad general. The Getty alone has returned nearly 50 items, most recently in 2016, when a terracotta head representing the god Hades was sent back to Sicily.
The statue known as “Victorious Youth” is displayed at the Getty Villa in December 2018. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images
The Metropolitan Museum of Art has also relinquished scores of antiquities with questionable provenance to Italy, most famously the 2,500-year-old Euphronios krater and more than a dozen pieces of Hellenistic silver in 2006. In a statement at the time, the museum’s then-director Philippe de Montebello said returning the silver was “the appropriate solution to a complex problem, which redresses past improprieties in the acquisitions process.”
In 2020 alone, more than 500,000 stolen treasures were returned to Italy from museums and private collections around the world, according to Alessandrini.
“Museums wanted the big, fantastic art — they didn’t think about what’s behind a wonderful vase in an American museum,” he said. “But what’s behind it is the destruction of an entire site that was intact for thousands of years. So, you must not buy anything without an export license from the Italian government.”
Work to be done
Darius Arya, an archeologist and director of the education platform Ancient Rome Live, has seen his own dig sites looted, but he doesn’t put all the blame on tomb raiders.
“There are a lot of culprits,” he said. “It’s going to be the tombaroli, the buyer from the tombaroli, and then every single step up to the person who has the freeport (secretive tax-free storage facility) that’s holding these artifacts before they are finally sold to an auction house or private buyer.
“All these people are participating. If they know what the tomboroli are doing… they’re all guilty.”
The Carabinieri Art Squad uses many warehouses to store seized or returned artifacts. Credit: CNN
“They make the paperwork (appear to) say the collection is from a French lady who sold it before 1970,” Brand offered as a hypothetical example. “But, of course, she’s dead so they can’t ask her where she bought it or if she owned it at all.”
One of the Carabinieri Art Squad’s many warehouses, which are used to store seized or returned artifacts, is located in central Rome. In the main vault, boxes tied to criminal case numbers are stacked high on shelves alongside the confiscated tools used by tombaroli, including metal detectors and large spikes used to burrow beneath the ground. The vault also contains counterfeit artifacts that have been passed off as originals, as well as modern art — confiscated in organized crime raids — that is missing provenance documentation.
This is view inside the vault of one of the Carabinieri Art Squad’s warehouses, located in Central Rome. Credit: CNN
The warehouse’s cache changes almost weekly as new confiscated items are brought in, and others are sent to be restored and eventually returned to the places they were stolen from.
Police commander Riccardi says his force now uses digital technology, including satellite imagery and drones, to chase tomboroli. His officers also scour the internet and dark web for illicit auctions where traffickers are selling off their stolen loot. He said the damage from the theft of each of these pieces is two-fold.
“The first is the economic damage, the artistic and historical value,” he said. “The second is what we call the de-contextualization of a site, where they rob the archeologists of tracing the history of the piece.
“Italy is rich in cultural heritage, and people can easily appreciate that, but buyers need to know the issues with patrimony and take the responsibility themselves, otherwise it amounts to stealing history.”
Top image: Largo di Torre Argentina square in Rome features four Roman Republican temples and the remains of Pompeys Theatre in the ancient Campus Martius.