NEWS

Antiquities smuggling enters the electronic age as thieves engage in modernization

Antiquities smugglers in Greece have updated their methods as the sale and purchase of stolen archaeological artifacts enters the electronic age, with one important case of trafficking in antiques over the Internet expected to see the light of publicity soon. According to sources, the Greek national involved in the case receives pictures of ancient objects via his Web address, values them and then sells them in Germany through e-commerce channels. But the authorities are on his track, and his arrest is considered just a matter of time. Thefts on the rise Cases of antiquities smuggling, after showing only a slight rise in the 1990s, have increased over the last three years for two main reasons: first, due to the building boom, and secondly, due to intensified police activity in this field. From the statistics of the Antiquities-Smuggling Squad, it emerges that from 1999 to 2001, there were 101 violations of the law, involving 142 Greeks and eight foreign nationals. There was trafficking in 2,014 archaeological finds, 157 Byzantine icons and 3,367 coins. No holds barred As ruthless as the antiquities thieves, the police operate on a no-holds-barred basis. On their guard and not easily deceived, the thieves have been known to kill any suspected police officer. Many of them know down to their fingertips how much the artifacts cost, where they come from and where and who possible buyers are. Professional antiquities smugglers, chiefly foreign nationals operating in Greece, recruit locals who they pay handsomely for artifacts. A similar tactic is followed by big Greek antiquities traffickers, who trawl for customs dodgers and grave robbers in the local population. The small fry send their catch to the gang leaders, who then transport it abroad. If the antiquities come from excavations and are not museum pieces, they are sold in auction houses to rich private individuals holding a collector’s license. Mafia In other cases, antiquities smuggling is very much a family affair. The mafia involved in the trafficking of artifacts is divided into families who operate mainly on Crete, in Thessaly and the Mesogeia area in Attica. The methods used to escape police attention bear close resemblance to those of drugs traffickers. The antiquities are transported either in boats or in trucks among packing cases of fruit and other goods. Until recently, Munich used to be regarded as the center for antiquities smuggling. That place has been taken by Eastern European countries, where there are few controls and the Mafia largely calls the shots. Over the last few years, the Japanese have begun to show particular interest in Cypriot antiquities. Collectors A restraining role is often played by collectors, who number no more than 65 in the whole of Greece, to which total can be added another 800 antiquities owners. Almost half of the inhabitants in the country, for that matter, could be regarded as crypto-owners, given that the country is strewn with artifacts, which are often discovered by private individuals. These collectors and owners often act as a protective factor for the country’s antiquities, since they provide invaluable assistance in saving them, keeping them in Greece, preserving them and guarding them under lock and key. Such collections have been declared and documented, and are within the law. There are basically two kinds of collectors: those who desire commercial benefit, and those who are motivated by love and artistic sensibility. In order to acquire a collector’s license, the antiquities and their intrinsic interest have to be recognized by the competent authorities. Checks are then carried out on the finances, the area where the antiquities will be kept and the insurance of the interested party. The difference between owners and collectors lies chiefly in the size of the collection. Owners Owners are usually individuals who have inherited certain objects of scientific interest. They can neither change their status, nor can they acquire other artifacts. By contrast, the collector is both entitled to augment his collection, and is also under no obligation to give their source. In consequence, many collectors have secret dealings with antiquities