Greece facing ‘explosive’ situation with illegal digs

A country of amazing archaeological wealth that is both a blessing and a curse, Greece has sought for decades to keep its antiquities out of the hands of smugglers. But even as pressure grows on museums in Europe and the United States to return disputed objects to their countries of origin, police in Greece warn that the looting of ancient sites shows no sign of abating. «It’s a complete free-for-all, the situation is very hard to control,» says George Gligoris, head of the Greek police force’s special department against antiquity smuggling. «And in some parts of the country, the spread of illegal digs is simply explosive,» he told AFP. Gligoris heads a team of 19 officers who cover all of Greece, a country with untapped archaeological wealth still hidden in its soil and sea depths. In major cities such as Athens and Thessaloniki, construction routinely runs into ancient graves, temples and homes. Monitoring is tougher in the Greek countryside, where farmers often stumble upon archaeological finds while working their fields. According to police figures, 89 people were arrested on charges of antiquity smuggling in 2005, and over 800 objects of various types and sizes were confiscated in the greater Athens area. In 2004, the equivalent numbers were 90 arrests and over 2,800 objects. «The first thing Greeks think of when they find an ancient object in their field is how to sell it abroad,» says Gligoris. The price of an ancient object depends on age, rarity and volume. According to recent press reports, a Roman-era statuette can fetch around 15,000 euros ($18,000), while a life-sized Classical Greek bronze statue from the 5th century BC recently sold for $7 million (5.8 million euros). Moving through clandestine channels, illegally procured antiquities from Greece frequently end up in private collections outside the country, and have even been known to grace the displays of European and American museums. And recently, the police have found out that robbers have also acquired a worrying taste for Byzantine-era religious masterpieces, which are both abundant and readily available at churches and monasteries across the country. One 16th century Byzantine icon stolen from a monastery in the northern peninsula of Halkidiki was estimated to be worth 1.5 million euros, Greek press reports said. «The robbers even dismantle entire sculpted icon screens,» says Gligoris. «Church icons have turned from objects of faith to objects of art that some people collect.» The current trend governing the trade of antiquities, however, could be moving in Greece’s favor. Last month, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art signed with Italy a deal on the return of disputed antiquities, including a 2,500-year-old Greek vase that has been the centerpiece of the museum’s holdings for decades. With a number of repatriation cases of its own now pending, including four items sought from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Greece is keen to follow Italy’s example. New Greek Culture Minister George Voulgarakis recently announced his intention to meet his Italian counterpart Rocco Buttiglione and the director of the Metropolitan Museum, Philippe de Montebello. «We are currently working together with the Italians on a number of objects,» says Gligoris, who has visited Rome repeatedly in recent months along with the senior Greek prosecutor investigating the illegal trade in Greek antiquities.