Italy's Artifacts Police Wage Global War, Recover 137,000 Objects

“Culture commandos” combine the roles of archaeologists, paleontologists, art historians, and combat-trained shock troops.

MORGANTINA, Sicily—Three thousand years ago, this broad ridge 50 miles west of Mount Etna was the perch of a magnificent city. Its monumental architecture and refined art, its irrigation systems and agricultural wealth, made it a leading Mediterranean power half a millennium before the rise of Imperial Rome.

Today, most of its wonders lie under acres of wild fennel and oleander. In several hours amid the ruins, this reporter encountered only five tourists, two unpaid volunteers, and not a single guard or maintenance worker. Ancient Morgantina is among archaeology’s most neglected secrets.

But it is no secret to tomb robbers, who have made it one of the most looted historic sites on the planet, or to the extraordinary army that battles them around the globe.

That army is Italy's Comando per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale (“High Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage”), popularly known as the “TPC,” a wing of the Italian army’s Carabinieri police detachment.

No country on earth boasts a more elite counter-force aimed at the illegal trade in artifacts. And nowhere is that illicit trade more sophisticated than in Italy.

Last year alone, the Comando conducted over 6,000 raids on warehouses and clandestine archaeological digs across Italy’s 20 regions. This elite company of police officers seized an astounding 137,000 stolen, smuggled, or counterfeit artifacts. The haul ranged from almost 80,000 fossils and 18,000 ancient carvings, tools, coins and ceramics, to 38,000 paintings and sculptures. Their total estimated value was more than $500 million.

The saga of the “Goddess of Morgantina,” a spectacular, 7-foot-tall, marble and limestone statue thought to depict the Greek divinity Aphrodite, is a classic account of the Comando’s tenacity. In a two-decade hunt, TPC detectives traced the movements of the 2,500-year-old figure from a looting in the 1970s through Italy, Switzerland, and England to Robert Symes, a notorious British contraband art dealer, who acquired the Goddess in 1986 for $1.5 million. He sold her to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles two years later for $18 million.

In 2007 Rome signed a formal agreement with the Getty and three other major U.S. museums, recognizing the legitimacy of Italian claims and repatriating 67 stolen masterpieces. The Goddess of Morgantina was returned to her Sicilian birthplace in May 2011 after 23 years in California.

1,300 Indictments

Unlike most law enforcement agencies, which emphasize successful prosecution over all else, “our first priority is the recovery of illicitly trafficked works,” says Captain Lanfranco Disibio, who heads up the busy TPC squad for Tuscany and Umbria. In a globalized marketplace for cultural objects, “It can take an enormous amount of time and work to pursue, arrest, and convict art criminals,” he said.

Demands for voluntary restitution, backed up by diplomatic pressure and documented evidence of an object’s legitimate provenance, can bring much more rapid results. But prosecution is not ignored. Last year, Comando raids led to 1,301 indictments, many linked to organized crime networks or ostensibly legitimate businesses.

Disibio led the way through a dense tangle of rear corridors in Florence’s Palazzo Pitti, the vast 350,000 square-foot museum where the TPC regional headquarters lie.

Our destination was a vaulted room crammed with thousands of confiscated artifacts, each carefully enveloped in protective wrapping and tagged by expert consultants with a label indicating its presumed identity and age, the date of its disappearance, and details of its rediscovery.

He unwrapped a remarkable 17th-century painting by Pietro da Cortona, which vanished in 1945 and was traced to a former Wehrmacht officer. TPC investigators found it in Freiburg, Germany and brought it back to Tuscany in April. “We aren’t certain yet where it was stolen,” Disibio said. “It may have belonged to a family that was murdered by the Nazis.”

Global Reach

In 1969, Italy was the first nation to establish a specific branch of law enforcement aimed exclusively at battling cultural crimes. According to UNESCO, the estimated value of annual trade in illicit artifacts worldwide is surpassed only by drugs and weapons. Yet the FBI fields just 15 special agents assigned to art and antiquity crime, compared with the Carabinieri’s 280 Patrimonio officers, the largest force of its kind.

There’s no mystery about that outsized commitment: Italy’s matchless legacy of cultural assets is an irresistible lure to black-market traffickers. UNESCO has named 779 world heritage cultural sites in 191 countries, an average of four sites per nation. Italy has 50, including Morgantina.

To meet the immense challenge implied in a database of “wanted” artifacts that now exceeds 1.1 million entries, the Comando has developed advanced training programs that are widely viewed as models.

Each applicant for a post must pass a rigorous course at the University of Rome in art history, archaeology, and international legal conventions. But before reaching that point, “they must demonstrate exceptional investigative skills,” Disibio said, as we walked back to his office past rooms of officers seated at computers.

They were poring through online dealer and museum catalogues, eBay postings, and other online marketing operations in search of suspect works. This is often a first step toward field investigations in partnership with Interpol or allied overseas law enforcement agencies such as New Scotland Yard and the FBI.

The unit’s role has grown to embrace endangered cultural sites far beyond Italy’s borders. Its squads have been deployed in war-torn Cambodia, just a few miles from territory held by Khmers Rouges guerrillas, and in Bosnia at the height of ferocious bombardments during the separatist conflict there. Another mission was sent to Iraq in the first months of the US-led invasion in 2003, before most foreign combat troops arrived. Their mandate was to end the devastating looting of the Baghdad Museum, and to catalogue is losses.

A Treasure Trove in the Weeds

Today the Carabinieri TPC must also cope with steep cutbacks in maintenance budgets for the very patrimony it is charged with defending. At Morgantina, a volunteer pleaded for international press attention to the site’s condition.

“That’s where the silver came from,” he said, pointing to a weed-clogged field across the road from the main archaeological park. Along with the park itself, it was surrounded by an insubstantial garden fence that would pose no barrier to a determined looter. “Who is to say there aren’t more treasures there?”

He alluded to a breathtaking set of 16 silver bowls and plates, adorned with golden imagery, that was made by the ancient city’s craftsmen over 2,200 years ago. It may well have been their last creative hurrah, buried as Roman troops launched the attack that destroyed Morgantina in 211 BC during the Second Punic War.

Unearthed by tomb-robbers using metal detectors in 1978, according to TPC trackers, the set was sold for $27,000 to a Sicilian dealer in Switzerland, then resold for $875,000 to Robert Hecht, an American dealer. It was purchased from Hecht by New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1982 for $3 million. The Metropolitan returned the 16 pieces to Sicily in 2010.

Hecht, who sold archaeological artifacts to the British Museum and the Louvre, as well as U.S. institutions, was indicted by Italy in 2005 for conspiracy to traffic in illegal antiquities. The case was dropped without resolution in 2012 when the statute of limitations ran out. He died that same year at the age of 92.

Follow Frank Viviano on Twitter.

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