Italian police smash cross-border antiquities trafficking

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ROME (AP) — Italian police have broken up a cross-border criminal gang illicitly trafficking in archaeological artifacts clandestinely excavated in southern Italy for export abroad, authorities said Monday.

The culture-crime division of the Carabinieri military police said two suspects were jailed and 21 put under house arrest at dawn Monday, most of them in Calabria in the ‘’toe’’ of the Italian peninsula, but also in Milan and other Italian cities.

Some other 80 suspects are under investigation, including in Serbia, Britain, France and Germany, where searches were carried out. Investigators were aided by police of those four countries.

During the investigation, police recovered thousands of artifacts dating from the fourth and third centuries B.C., including terracotta vases and oil lamps, plates decorated with images of animals, necklaces and decorative clasps. The artifacts’ worth totaled several million euros (dollars), investigators said.

Many of the antiquities had been sent to auction houses in London; Munich, Germany; and other northern European cities, said Capt. Bartolo Taglietti, who commands the Carabinieri art squad in Cosenza, Calabria.

After the artifacts were dug up, the Calabria-based ring contacted an Italian in the central city of Perugia, who in turn had contacts in the European auction world, investigators alleged.

Italian law specifies that antiquities discovered on Italy’s territory belong to the state.

Prosecutors involved in the probe are based in Crotone, a seaside city whose roots go back to its foundation in the 8th century B.C. by ancient Greeks. The ancient city was an important colony of Magna Grecia. The illegal digs were conducted at known archaeological sites in Calabria, including not far from the famed Hera Lacinia temple, police said.

Police used a drone to help in the investigation.

While archaeologists painstakingly sift through soil with their hands or hand-held tools to avoid damaging artifacts, Carabinieri said the trafficking gang used an excavator similar to a backhoe to dig for antiquities. The clandestine excavators covered their faces with ski masks to avoid being recognized on video surveillance cameras, but investigators traced the suspects after noting the license number on a vehicle parked nearby.

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