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ITALIAN POLICE announced on Friday they had recovered a haul of antiquities looted from tombs in the east-central Marche region. The booty, some 1500 objects in all, had been dug up by a team of "tombaroli", Italy's tomb raiders, and covered a period stretching from 8th century BC to 5th century AD. Among the most prized items were Hellenistic vases, drinking cups and a bronze statuette of the goddess Minerva

Art hit squad takes on tomb raiders after relics looted.
Public opinion turning against ‘tombaroli’.

>From Philip Willan in Rome.

Some 16 people have been reported to magistrates in Ancona for prosecution: three alleged tomb raiders and 13 of their alleged clients. Lieutenant Salvatore Strocchia, of the local carabinieri paramilitary police, said the haul was enough “to fill a small museum”.

For the carabinieri unit that protects Italy’s vast and priceless artistic heritage it was all in a day’s work, but part of a battle that the Italian state actually seems to be winning.
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Robbing tombs and other buried archaeological sites has long been a popular rural pastime. Like tax evasion, it was known to be illegal but not particularly frowned upon. The homes of wealthy professionals often contained a secret hoard of archaeological treasures and many felt they might just as well be in private hands as gathering dust in a museum storeroom.

In recent times, attitudes have changed and there is a growing awareness that the unscientific excavations of the tombaroli are stealing the country’s history, as well as an assortment of its antiquities.

A three-pronged strategy from the government has made life increasingly difficult for Italy’s would-be Indiana Joneses. Increased monitoring of archaeological sites means they are more likely to be caught; tougher penalties are in the parliamentary pipeline; and aggressive prosecution of museum curators and middlemen who trade in illegally excavated antiquities is drying up the market for their goods.

Last year, the carabinieri art squad discovered just 37 illegal digs, a tiny figure compared with the 1000 or so regularly found in the 1990s.

Pietro Casasanta, a retired tombarolo who lives in the countryside north of Rome, registered the change last week in a disconsolate interview with the Associated Press.

In the past, he worked during the day with a bulldozer, deliberately using the same hours as construction crews to become one of Italy’s most successful plunderers of archaeological treasures.

When he wasn’t in prison, the convicted looter operated for decades in the countryside area outside Rome.

Now, he says, it is becoming more difficult to dig and to sell. “The whole network of merchants has disappeared,” he complained.

This is the crucial development, resulting from the Italian state’s aggressive pursuit of the high-level art buyers who fuelled the lucrative market in stolen antiquities.

Important heads have already rolled. In June 2005, art dealer Giacomo Medici was sentenced to 10 years in prison and fined 10 million (£6.8m) for trading in stolen antiquities.

His fall began in 1995 when Swiss police discovered a hoard of looted treasures – almost 4000 of them – in a warehouse on the outskirts of Geneva. There were vases by Greek masters, including Exekias and Euphronios and Polaroid photos of other treasures, among them pictures of frescoes from a villa near Pompeii. They had been cut up into laptop-sized chunks for easy removal and later reassembly.

ANTIQUITIES expert Gilda Bartolini was called in to assess the hoard. She estimated that the Etruscan items must have come from around 50 important tombs and noted that an archaeologist was likely to come across at most one or two major new tombs in a lifetime.

A document confiscated by police from the Paris home of international art dealer Robert Hecht recorded how he had driven round the Italian countryside in Medici’s Fiat buying what the tombaroli had dug up the previous night.

Hecht and Marion True, a former curator of Los Angeles’s Getty Museum, are currently on trial in Rome, accused of purchasing looted artworks. Both deny the charge.

Fighting the art thieves has been a priority for culture minister Francesco Rutelli. He has travelled several times to the US to negotiate the return of stolen Italian antiquities from American museums and reached a ground-breaking agreement with The Boston Museum. It provides for the loan of Italian works of art to the museum and joint research and archaeological excavations in Italy.

“If the American museums are not buying any more it’s obvious that the market will dry up,” said Maria Bonmassar, a spokeswoman for the Italian culture ministry.

She noted that the psychological climate had changed and Italians now prized their artistic heritage. The people of Morgantina in Sicily, for example, have campaigned actively for the return of a headless statue of Venus stolen from their area that is still in the hands of the Getty Museum.

Bonmassar said: “In the past, if people found antiquities while digging the foundations of a house they would try to conceal them. Now, there is an awareness that this is a part of our cultural patrimony.”

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