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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Sicilian mafia boss Messina Denaro ‘in a coma’

Notorious Sicilian Mafia boss Matteo Messina Denaro, captured in January after three decades on the run, is in a coma in hospital and no longer being fed, media reports said Saturday.

Sicilian mafia boss Messina Denaro 'in a coma'

The 61-year-old has been suffering from colon cancer for several years. It was his decision to seek treatment that led to his arrest following a visit to a clinic in the Sicilian capital Palermo.

Facing numerous life sentences, he was detained in a high-security jail in L’Aquila, where he continued treatment in his cell, according to reports.

But in early August, Messina Denaro was moved to the inmates ward of the local hospital, where his condition has declined in recent days.

He is now in an “irreversible coma”, according to media reports. Medics have stopped feeding him and he has asked not to be resuscitated.

Messina Denaro was for many years a leading figure in Cosa Nostra, the real-life Sicilian crime syndicate depicted in the Godfather movies.

This handout photo taken and released by the Italian Carabinieri Press Office on January 16th, 2023, shows the last picture of Italy’s top wanted mafia boss, Matteo Messina Denaro in Palermo, following his arrest. Handout / ITALIAN CARABINIERI PRESS OFFICE / AFP

He was also one of its most ruthless bosses and was handed six life sentences over the years, including for his role in the murder of anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone in 1992.

He was also found guilty of involvement in a string of deadly bombings in Rome, Florence and Milan in 1993, and the kidnapping and subsequent murder of the 12-year-old son of a witness in the Falcone case.

Messina Denaro disappeared in the summer of 1993, and became the top name on Italy’s most-wanted list.

READ ALSO: More than 100 suspected Italian mafia members arrested in Europe-wide raids

There was intense speculation in the years that followed about where he had gone. In the end, he was found to have been staying near his hometown of Castelvetrano in western Sicily.

Investigators had been combing the Sicilian countryside for possible hideouts for years, wiretapping members of his family and his friends.

They were heard discussing the medical problems of an unnamed person who suffered from cancer, as well as eye problems – a person who detectives became sure was Messina Denaro.

They used a national health system database to search for male patients of the right age and medical history, and eventually closed in.

But while his arrest brought some relief for his victims, the mob boss always maintained his silence.

In interviews in custody since being arrested, Messina Denaro even denied he was a member of the Cosa Nostra.