‘Tomb raiders’: The pandemic is making it easier than ever to loot ancient Roman treasures

Written by Barbie Latza Nadeau, CNNAntonia Mortensen, CNNRome, Italy

The looting of ancient art in Italy is not a new phenomenon. It is at least as old as the Roman empire, which not only contended with its own tomb raiders — or “tombaroli,” as they are known in Italy — but also pilfered riches from other nations.

The Covid-19 pandemic, however, has offered these thieves new opportunities to raid closed archeological sites, churches and museums for priceless artifacts while police are reassigned to enforce lockdowns.

During 2020, there was a notable increase in the trading of looted artifacts on Facebook groups globally, according to Katie Paul, co-director of the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research Project. In April and May, one of the largest groups monitored by the project almost doubled in size to 300,000 members.

“This uptick can be attributed in part to the coronavirus lockdown and downturn in economies in many parts of the world,” she said via email. “The combination of police pre-occupation with the crisis coupled with job losses due to lockdown are making the problem worse.”

Italy’s ‘tomb raiders’ are capitalizing on the pandemic

Interpol, which has just introduced an app called ID-Art containing a database of stolen goods, said that 56,400 “cultural goods” were seized and 67 people arrested — including tomb raiders and artifact traffickers — in global anti-trafficking operations between June and October 2020, when much of Europe was locked down. In Italy alone, this included 1.2 million euros’ ($1.5 million) worth of ceramics, artifacts, art and books that had been on their way to buyers, often through back channels like the dark web and black market, before authorities stepped in.

Arthur Brand, one of Europe’s foremost art detectives and author of “Hitler’s Horses: The Incredible True Story of the Detective who Infiltrated the Nazi Underworld,” told CNN that at least 50% of ancient Roman artifacts on the market today are stolen. He said there are “hundreds of thousands of tomb raiders working all over the world,” with the term “tombaroli” used to describe thieves looting artifacts from any type of site, not just tombs.

“Some are farmers and some are metal detector owners, but most are professional,” he said, adding that “it’s easier to dig in the ground to win the lottery” than to buy a winning lottery ticket.

Funding shortfalls

At first glance, Largo di Torre Argentina square in central Rome seems dull compared to the obvious splendors of Italy’s capital. A taxi stand butts up against one side of a graffiti-covered fence surrounding sunken ruins. The city’s light-rail system rumbles past the other side.

But 3 meters (10 feet) below street level, columns are scattered like children’s toys around the place where Julius Caesar was betrayed by his allies and brutally murdered in 44 B.C. The site of what was perhaps the most infamous assassination in the history of the Roman Empire — including the ruins of four temples dating back to the 3rd century B.C. — is now reduced to a traffic obstacle.

It is easy to see how cunning thieves could have access to Italy’s treasures. The ruins witness frequent arrests, as tourists and others can easily jump down without detection. It is believed to be one of Rome’s most pilfered sites, even though many of most of the important objects, including vases and statues, were taken years ago.

With the city not allocating sufficient funds to continue excavations or make the area safer for the public, the ruins lie neglected. Italian government records show that, amid a series of economic crises, the country has cut its cultural budget every year since 2011. The national government allocates 1% of its budget to cultural heritage, according to Italy’s 2021 budget.
Rome spends a comparatively more, at about 2.4% of its annual budget. But it has still fallen to private firms — who, in Italy, often help pay to safeguard cultural treasures — to make up some of the shortfall.
Shoe brand Tod’s, for example, donated more than 25 million euros ($30.6 million) to help restore the Colosseum; Fendi poured millions into the Trevi Foundation renovations; and Diesel is helping fund the restoration of the Rialto Bridge in Venice. And soon, thanks to a donation of 1 million euros ($1.2 million) by luxury jeweler Bulgari, the Largo di Torre Argentina will get a revamp. Proposed work includes unearthing more ruins and creating new public walkways.

Without these private donations, many sites across the country would fall into greater disarray, and Italy’s cultural ministry works to forge partnerships with companies looking for monuments to sponsor.

Money to be made

The Carabinieri Art Squad is a special branch of Italian law enforcement dedicated to the protection of cultural heritage. Its officers are among the first to secure museums and churches after natural disasters, like earthquakes. But they spend most of their time chasing tombaroli and recovering stolen art.

“We note that tomb raiding is a profession intertwined in families, and passed down from father to son to keep the trade alive,” the squad’s commander, General Roberto Riccardi, told CNN. “They are active in all areas where there are archeological treasures.”

Tomb raiders reside at the lowest level of the trafficking food chain, police say, because they make the least money and take the greatest risks if they get caught. But the items they acquire may find their way up to the world’s wealthiest people.

In May, reality star and influencer Kim Kardashian was named in a lawsuit alleging she purchased part of an illegally smuggled Roman statue: the lower half of Myron’s Samian Athena. The statue dates back to the 1st or 2nd century and was seized by US Customs and Border protection with a cache of 40 other pieces valued at around $745,000, according to court documents.

In May, reality star and influencer Kim Kardashian was named in a lawsuit alleging she purchased part of an illegally smuggled Roman statue.

In May, reality star and influencer Kim Kardashian was named in a lawsuit alleging she purchased part of an illegally smuggled Roman statue. Credit: Department of Justice

Kardashian denied buying the statue, or even being aware of its existence. A spokesperson for the star said in a statement: “We believe that it may have been purchased using her name without authorization and because it was never received (and) she was unaware of the transaction.” But the seizure underscored how authorities place the onus on collectors to ensure that high-value artifacts have been legally acquired. The International Association of Dealers in Ancient Art told CNN that while the legitimate trade of historical artifacts is worth $130 million a year, the illicit trade is estimated at $2 billion (though much of this is driven by war, in Syria especially, the organization said).

Over the centuries, Roman artifacts have been unearthed not only through sponsored archeological digs and illegal tomb raiding, but also urban development, according to Italy’s cultural ministry. In Rome, efforts to expand the city’s underground transportation system have been delayed and diverted, sometimes for years, as new discoveries are made. Some of the unearthed artifacts end up being put on display in the new Metro stations.

In Italy, construction sites are often legally required to have archeologists on hand. It is their responsibility to determine whether items found while laying cables or fixing sewer systems are worth digging out or — as is often the case — should be left alone, in case someone later has the funds to excavate the area properly.

But these ancient artifact graveyards are a temptation for tombaroli lurking over construction fences and clandestinely rooting for treasure on the fringes of digs.

Global networks

Forensic archaeologist Stefano Alessandrini, who has advised Italy’s Justice and Culture Ministries on the repatriation of stolen antiquities, has been involved in countless negotiations to return illegally acquired art and artifacts from museums like the Getty in Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Alessandrini described the 2005 trial of former Getty curator Marion True, who was accused of trafficking stolen goods alongside American art dealer Robert Hecht, as a turning point in efforts to hold institutions accountable for the provenance of their collections. Charges against True were ultimately dropped after the statute of limitations expired, but the trial prompted a number of museums to return artifacts with questionable histories, said Alessandrini, who worked on the case on behalf of the Culture Ministry.

More than 350 items of importance have been returned to Italy from North American museums since True’s trial, according to Riccardi, the Carabinieri Art Squad general. The Getty alone has returned nearly 50 items, most recently in 2016, when a terracotta head representing the god Hades was sent back to Sicily.

The museum did acknowledge errors in judgment at the time of True’s trial. “From the beginning, we knew that there was the potential of being offered material that had been illegally excavated, or illegally removed from Greece or Turkey or Italy,” the Getty’s former director John Walsh told Italian prosecutors, according to the Los Angeles Times. “This was a common problem. Everybody knew it in 1983; everybody knows it now.”
An ancient bronze statue called the “Victorious Youth,” remains a source of heated debate, with an Italian court ruling in 2018 that it should be returned to Italy. The Getty has vowed not to return it, saying in a statement that the statue is of Greek origin and has “never been part of Italy’s cultural heritage.”
The statue known as "Victorious Youth" is displayed at the Getty Villa in December 2018.

The statue known as “Victorious Youth” is displayed at the Getty Villa in December 2018. Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has also relinquished scores of antiquities with questionable provenance to Italy, most famously the 2,500-year-old Euphronios krater and more than a dozen pieces of Hellenistic silver in 2006. In a statement at the time, the museum’s then-director Philippe de Montebello said returning the silver was “the appropriate solution to a complex problem, which redresses past improprieties in the acquisitions process.”

In 2020 alone, more than 500,000 stolen treasures were returned to Italy from museums and private collections around the world, according to Alessandrini.

“Museums wanted the big, fantastic art — they didn’t think about what’s behind a wonderful vase in an American museum,” he said. “But what’s behind it is the destruction of an entire site that was intact for thousands of years. So, you must not buy anything without an export license from the Italian government.”

Work to be done

Darius Arya, an archeologist and director of the education platform Ancient Rome Live, has seen his own dig sites looted, but he doesn’t put all the blame on tomb raiders.

“There are a lot of culprits,” he said. “It’s going to be the tombaroli, the buyer from the tombaroli, and then every single step up to the person who has the freeport (secretive tax-free storage facility) that’s holding these artifacts before they are finally sold to an auction house or private buyer.

“All these people are participating. If they know what the tomboroli are doing… they’re all guilty.”

Arya said artifacts are often kept in warehouses for up to a decade before they reach the black market in order to skirt Italy’s tight statutes of limitations that often allow illicit traffickers to escape justice. When new regulations are put in place — such as 1995’s UNIDROIT Convention, for example — they only apply to art that is illegally exported art after that date, which gives traffickers loopholes.
The Carabinieri Art Squad uses many warehouses to store seized or returned artifacts.

The Carabinieri Art Squad uses many warehouses to store seized or returned artifacts. Credit: CNN

Brand, the art detective and historian, also blames the middlemen — the art dealers especially — who he says take advantage of loopholes and create false documents that make it easier to sell to unknowing collectors. A 1970 UNESCO convention prohibited importing, exporting or transferring ownership of illegally excavated artifacts, so paperwork is often doctored to make it appear as if the first sale took place before that date, he said.

“They make the paperwork (appear to) say the collection is from a French lady who sold it before 1970,” Brand offered as a hypothetical example. “But, of course, she’s dead so they can’t ask her where she bought it or if she owned it at all.”

Meanwhile, the business of pillaging continues. In Anzio, south of Rome, the expansive ruins of Nero’s imperial palace on the sea have been targeted by many tombaroli over the years. The site is protected by a rusting fence on which beachgoers hang towels to dry. On a sunny day in May, CNN even witnessed a man, who had breached the perimeter with a shovel, digging unhindered in broad daylight. During Italy’s lockdown, three other intruders had breached the site, which has been pilfered for centuries, local museum curator Paola Pistolesi told CNN.

One of the Carabinieri Art Squad’s many warehouses, which are used to store seized or returned artifacts, is located in central Rome. In the main vault, boxes tied to criminal case numbers are stacked high on shelves alongside the confiscated tools used by tombaroli, including metal detectors and large spikes used to burrow beneath the ground. The vault also contains counterfeit artifacts that have been passed off as originals, as well as modern art — confiscated in organized crime raids — that is missing provenance documentation.

This is view inside the vault of one of the Carabinieri Art Squad's warehouses, located in Central Rome.

This is view inside the vault of one of the Carabinieri Art Squad’s warehouses, located in Central Rome. Credit: CNN

The warehouse’s cache changes almost weekly as new confiscated items are brought in, and others are sent to be restored and eventually returned to the places they were stolen from.

Police commander Riccardi says his force now uses digital technology, including satellite imagery and drones, to chase tomboroli. His officers also scour the internet and dark web for illicit auctions where traffickers are selling off their stolen loot. He said the damage from the theft of each of these pieces is two-fold.

“The first is the economic damage, the artistic and historical value,” he said. “The second is what we call the de-contextualization of a site, where they rob the archeologists of tracing the history of the piece.

“Italy is rich in cultural heritage, and people can easily appreciate that, but buyers need to know the issues with patrimony and take the responsibility themselves, otherwise it amounts to stealing history.”

Top image: Largo di Torre Argentina square in Rome features four Roman Republican temples and the remains of Pompeys Theatre in the ancient Campus Martius.


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