Illegal Artifact Smuggling and Forgery Ring Smashed in Europe-Wide Police Swoop
After a hunt lasting several decades, a team of almost 250 top European criminal investigators and highly-trained police officers have busted a 24-man strong, ring of international illegal artifact traffickers and professional forgers, which is believed to have smuggled over $30 million of stolen Greek treasures to traders, collectors and auction houses in Europe.
The investigators began following members of the illegal ring in 2014 and detailing the extent of the illegal goings on. They told reporters at The Telegraph that the gang “systematically looted Sicily’s rich archaeological heritage” selling over “25,000 items including ancient coins, statues and pottery.”
Greek Valley of the Temples Pillaged
Europol financed each country's forces to come together in an attempt to smash the ring that was channelling illegal artifacts from the ancient Greek Valley of the Temples in the provinces of Caltanisetta and Agrigento, a UNESCO world heritage site, to auction houses in Germany. This incredible archaeological matrix is famed for its extensive pagan and Christian necropolises and sprawling network of subterranean aqueducts and cisterns.
Transnational Criminal Ring
Police found €30,000 (£26,000) in cash in Vere's apartment, according to German press reports, and he was arrested by Spanish police on charges of alleged possession of dozens of stolen treasures including rare Greek coins. “The London art merchant Thomas William Veres commanded a transnational criminal holding that was able to traffic considerable quantities of Sicilian archaeological artifacts,” Major Mancusco of the Italian police’s antiquities squad said. He also told reporters at The Times that Vere “was an antiquities expert, fluent in Italian and very cultured. We had no idea he was running such an elaborate operation."
Spanish Guardia Civil agents nabbed Vere’s alleged accomplice in Barcelona, an Italian named Andrea Palma, 36, and German police from Baden-Wurttemberg arrested another alleged gang member in the German town of Edingen, who was identified as another Italian, Rocco Mondello, aged 61.
Thomas William Veres’ high life has come to an end. Taken in 2014 at the preview of LAPADA Art and Antiques Fair. Credit: Dafydd Jones
National Treasures Reclaimed
Up to 250 officers from the Carabinieri, which defends Italy’s national treasures and specifically the Cultural Heritage of Rome, seized "1,500 tools including metal detectors which the gang used to recover and smuggle artefacts." The Telegraph reported that the Arts and Antiques unit joined forces with Operation Nexus and Italian police, and that a warrant was executed in Stanmore on Wednesday and it is now suspected that the mastermind of the Sicilian smuggling operation was 76-year-old Francesco Lucerna, who "regularly dispatched stolen archaeological remains to northern Italy through a network of couriers" where investigators believe they contacted Mr Veres’ gang.
Numerous metal detectors used to recover artifacts were seized by Italian police. Credit: Lamzin Vladimir / Dreamstime.
Underground Workshops Produced Forgeries
Not only did the gang smuggle vast tonnages of artifacts, but they operated underground workshops in which teams of master counterfeiters produced archaeological replicas, which were then sold as originals at legitimate art auction houses in Munich, police told reporters. According to Document Journal , “The revelation could have an enormous impact on scholarly studies.”
One report noted that Elizabeth Marlowe, professor of art history at Colgate University, said that this case is “the first documented evidence we have that forgeries and original artifacts travel in the same network.” She added that “some of the dealers are more inclined to purchase looted goods because at least they’re confident of authenticity.” Being caught with forgeries “undermines their prestige, special knowledge, and connections with the ancient world.” Discovering such an extensive criminal gang selling replicas directly contradicts this train of thought.
Top image: Representational image – does not depict artifacts recovered in Operation Demetra. Coins stolen by the Nazis, Jewish Museum of Greece (Athens), CC by SA 2.0 .
By Ashley Cowie