Relic raiders store loot in ‘safe’ Geneva

International authorities say the illegal trade in antiquities clears as much money as drug dealing and the trade of women for sex. It’s also an open secret that trafficking in archaeological artifacts also includes significant money laundering. Gligoris says that when someone wants to use a really large sum of money which has come from illegal activities, he buys smuggled items. The money launderer then sells the items to collections around the world, «legalizing» the exchange. Foreign collections are often placed in «offshore» companies, which are often located in areas where authorities can’t touch them. «For a smuggled relic’s history to be covered up, it must go through many hands,» Gligoris said. «The big antiquities smugglers advance to transactions of objects through ghost companies… In most foreign countries, laws are also elastic and simply allow for the legalization of a relic. For example, an all-gold laurel which ended up in a foreign museum but was found in a dig in Greece was legalized through a simple declaration of responsibility.» Hidden in Geneva Before they end up in private collections or foreign museums, the archaeological artifacts pass first through Switzerland and especially through the «free zone» of Geneva, where the world’s biggest antiquities smugglers have storage space. Relics such as statuettes, coins and oil flasks arrive in Switzerland hidden in giant containers which will eventually be transported to the collections and museums of Western Europe and the United States. Police in the antiquities theft division told Kathimerini that 90 percent of the artifacts which are illegally excavated in Greece are sent out of the country.» Tricks of the trade Greek collectors follow a different strategy, since the laws here forbid the export – but not the import – of archaeological artifacts. In other words, to avoid being noticed, the collectors take the objects outside Greece’s borders – to the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria – and then re-enter Greece with the artifacts. They declare to customs that they are carrying archaeological relics, automatically legalizing them, and they go about their business without any problems. Recently, the local authorities have undertaken a great effort with neighboring Italy to crack down on smugglers and repatriate stolen archaeological treasures now residing in museums and private collections. At the end of last year, the Italians secured the return of several smuggled relics from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. This process is ongoing; relics of Greek origin are still being negotiated. Similar cooperation occurred six years ago in an effort to stop the sale of gold antiquities at an auction in the United States. The relics had been stolen from a domed grave in the Nemea area near Corinth in the Peloponnese and ended up on the other side of the Atlantic. Archaeologists identified the relics because they were similar to ones found legally in the same place. The Greek authorities got involved and secured the return of the goods.

Subscribe to our Newsletters

Enter your information below to receive our weekly newsletters with the latest insights, opinion pieces and current events straight to your inbox.

By signing up you are agreeing to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.