Italian police bust smuggling gang looting ancient artefacts

The gang used bulldozers and metal detectors to dig up and loot objects dating from 400 BC, including ancient Greek vases and jewels, in southern Italy before smuggling them out of the country.

Italian police bust smuggling gang looting ancient artefacts
Photo: DepositPhotos

European police have busted an international crime gang involved in trafficking tens of thousands of Greek archaeological artefacts looted from illegal excavations in Italy, law enforcement agencies said on Monday.

Police from Italy, Britain, France, Germany and Serbia arrested 23 suspects and carried out 103 searches in the investigation that started in 2017, the EU police agency Europol and Eurojust said.

The artefacts were looted in the southern Calabria region – the “toe” of Italy – before being smuggled out of the country and sold across Europe.

Screenshot: Google Maps

“Illegal excavations were managed by a well-structured organised crime group… led by two Calabrians” living in the southern province of Crotone, the agencies said in a combined statement.

In Calabria “the cultural heritage includes important traces from the Greek and Roman period”, Europol said.

There are several important archaeological sites near Crotone, including  the site of a ruined ancient Greek temple at Capo Colonna.

Italian media said two Calabrian men aged 59 and 30 had been arrested.

The gang also included “fences, intermediaries and mules operating out of different Italian regions” with the looted artefacts then going through contacts in Dijon, Munich, London and Vrsac in northeastern Serbia.

Some of the stolen objects are said to date as far back as the fourth and third centuries B.C. and include five terracotta vases and oil lamps, plates depicting animal scenes, brooches and various jewels, Italian media reports said.

The ruins of an ancient Greek temple at Capo Colonne, Calabria. Photo: Depositphotos

The looters used bulldozers to dig craters, before sifting through the earth and passing it through metal detectors, the reports added, quoting police sources.

“The looting carried out over the course of several years caused considerable damage to Italian cultural heritage,” Europol and Eurojust added.

Coordination between the two agencies enabled “arrests, searches and seizures immediately and simultaneously in the five countries,” they added.

Italy has the highest number of art thefts in the world, and has its own special “art police” squad – Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale (TPC), or the Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage – tasked with tracking down stolen artworks and artefacts, many of which are found to have been smuggled abroad.

Last year, three ancient artefacts were returned to Italy by US officials after they were traced to an auction house in New York.


Italian and Swiss police in 2016 recovered a haul of archaeological artefacts stolen from Italy and stored by a notorious British antiquities dealer.

The haul, worth nine million euros, was discovered in 2014 in a storage unit at the Geneva Freeport rented by Britain's disgraced Robin Symes, a giant in the illegal antiquities trade with ties to Italian tomb raiders.

In the last year alone, 8,405 artworks, scultpures, ancient artefacts and other treasures have gone missing in Italy according to the latest police reports.

An ancient Roman sculpture stolen in Italy and put up for sale at a Dutch auction house in 2016. Photo: Remko de Waal ANP/AFP

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American convicted of killing Italian police officer granted house arrest

An Italian appeals court on Monday granted house arrest to one of two American men convicted of killing an Italian police officer in Rome while on a teenage summer holiday in 2019.

American convicted of killing Italian police officer granted house arrest

Gabriel Natale-Hjorth will serve the remainder of his recently reduced 11-year sentence at his grandparents’ home in Fregene, outside Rome, after the appeals court agreed to the defence’s request, his lawyer Fabio Alonzi said.

Natale-Hjorth, now 23, was found guilty in May 2021 along with his friend Finnegan Elder for the fatal stabbing of policeman Mario Cerciello Rega during a late-night encounter in Rome.

Both Elder, who was 19 at the time of the killing, and Natale-Hjorth, then 18, were sentenced to life in prison, a punishment their lawyers denounced as harsher than those given for premeditated mafia killings.

In 2022, the defendants saw their sentences reduced to 24 years for Elder, who wielded the knife during the attack, and 22 years for Natale-Hjorth, who helped his friend hide the weapon afterwards.

From the beginning, the case offered up two very different versions about what happened in the moments just before Elder stabbed Cerciello with an 11-inch (28-centimetre) camping knife on a dark Rome street.

While the prosecution’s star witness, Cerciello’s partner Andrea Varriale, testified that the officers were suddenly attacked, the teens said the two men in plain clothes jumped them from behind and did not identify themselves as police or show their badges.

The Americans claimed self-defence, saying they thought the men were drug dealers, following their botched attempt to buy drugs earlier in the evening.

Italy’s highest court ordered a retrial in 2023.

Earlier this month, the appeals court re-examining the case re-sentenced Elder to 15 years in prison and Natale-Hjorth to 11 years.

READ ALSO: Italian court cuts sentences of Americans convicted of killing police officer

Under Italian law, the court has up to 90 days to publish its reasoning for the resentencing.

“Remember [Natale-Hjorth] has already served five years in prison,” Alonzi told AFP.

On Monday, a lawyer for Cerciello’s widow, Massimo Ferrandino, said his client Rosamaria was “filled with a profound sense of mistrust” over the court’s decision.

The case horrified Italy and led to an outpouring of public grief for the newlywed Cerciello, who was hailed as a national hero.

But the trial also revealed multiple examples of police error, including the blindfolding of Natale-Hjorth while in custody.

The officer who blindfolded him was later handed a two-month suspended sentence.