NEWS

Greek treasures easy prey for antiquities traffickers

The net profits that come from the international trade in antiquities are akin to those of human and narcotics trafficking. Organized crime networks legalize revenues from illegal activities by purchasing antiquities, while professional dealers in illegal antiquities arm themselves with cutting-edge technology to locate artifacts buried deep in the ground. On the Internet, meanwhile, an endless number of sites hold non-stop «auctions» of items that can date as far back as the sixth century BC. Shipwrecks At the same time, unprotected from the greedy hands of antiquities traffickers, tens of thousands of priceless ancient objects are lying on the Greek seabed, there for the taking. It is estimated that there are over 12,000 shipwrecks around the country and, according to officers of the Department of Antiquities Trafficking, the majority of them are easy prey for antiquities smugglers from all over Europe and the United States. «Normally, they appear as wealthy individuals who come to Greece by yacht after having established their buyers. They mostly look for bronze and gold artifacts, since pottery is abundant and therefore of less value,» explains Giorgos Gligoris, who heads the Department of Antiquities Trafficking. «Tracking them down is extremely difficult because the shipwrecks cannot all be patrolled, while once they have been brought up, we cannot prove they have been stolen because they have to be photographed and filed by the authorities first,» explains Gligoris. The majority of antiquities taken from Greece are sold abroad, as many countries, such as Great Britain, have no laws protecting antiquities and private collectors are willing to pay huge sums of money to acquire precious items with which to enrich their collections. One example is the recent discovery of items in Miami, Florida that were stolen in 1991 from the Archaeological Museum of Corinth. There are also records of several cases – even today – of items being purchased on the black market by large museums abroad, as well as numerous cases of well-known Greek collectors acquiring so many artifacts that their homes become veritable archaeological museums. «Most [stolen antiquities] go abroad, where they are made legal and where they can be sold at a higher prices,» says Gligoris. «Ancient Greek artifacts are the most valuable to collectors. They even build special cases or rooms in which to display them,» he adds. Byzantine treasures In the meantime, Byzantine artifacts are also under threat, as many lie unguarded in Greek churches and monasteries. Just recently, authorities located three 14th century icons that had been lifted from the Vianou Monastery on Crete. «Serious thefts are recorded from monasteries and churches around the country on a daily basis,» says Gligoris. «We must understand that original icons should be placed in museums and replicas should be put up in their place.» According to the most recent statistics, since the beginning of 2005 there have been 12 infringements of the law for the protection of antiquities and 14 arrests, while authorities have recovered 253 ancient artifacts, two icons and 12 priceless church relics.