Greece and Italy team up to recover stolen antiquities

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Greece has joined forces with Italy in a joint attempt to locate and repatriate priceless stolen antiquities, an effort that could have serious ramifications for Europe's leading museums.

After the surprise success of Italian authorities in securing the return of ancient masterpieces from New York's Metropolitan museum, Athens sent to Italy the investigator responsible for the capture and prosecution of the notorious November 17 terrorist group, so he could gather information.

Sources close to the investigation say the Athens prosecutor, Yiannis Diotis, met Italian counterparts in Rome, and acquired a catalogue of Polaroid images of looted art seized last year during raids targeting antiquities smugglers.

These images are said to include scores of ancient works, looted from Greece and sold to wealthy private collectors or major museums. The items were photographed while in the possession of crooked dealers and circulated to potential buyers, typically, before being sold through Swiss auction houses which operate outside EU laws on trafficking in stolen goods. Mr Diotis will now spearhead the effort to trace the pictured items, said to include priceless statues, vases, ornate wreaths and sculpted reliefs.

American museums, facing the threat of expensive legal action and bad publicity, have chosen to voluntarily return items when confronted by similar evidence by Italian prosecutors. Over the past 12 months, Italy has launched a major campaign to crackdown on illegal antiquities smugglers, prosecute art dealers involved and pressure museums into hand over looted works.

This week's return of the masterpiece vase, the Euphronios Krater, from the Metropolitan museum is only the latest landmark in Italy's battle to repatriate antiquities illegally removed from sites throughout the country, sold through a chain of dealers and ending up in the collections of respected museums.

So far, that effort has caused chaos exclusively for US institutions, but the Greek-Italian task force is likely to widen the focus to include pieces believed to be in European museums.

The Getty Museum in California, whose antiquities curator, Marion True, resigned last year and is now on trial in Italy on charges of conspiring with dealers trafficking in looted items, has agreed to return three of about 40 disputed archaeological treasures claimed by Italy.

The crisis worsened this month when the president of the J Paul Getty Trust -- one of the world's richest art institutes and the governing body of the museum - resigned amid an investigation of allegations that the trust's assets had been misused for personal benefit, excessive travel and lavish pay.

Italian progress has raised the pressure on Greek authorities to take a more serious attitude to cracking down on a trade which has been responsible for looting hundreds of millions of pounds worth of the country's cultural heritage.

An interview in the Greek magazine Epsilon with Giacomo Medici the key witness in the True trial in Rome, and himself facing up to 10 years in prison on charges of fencing looted art, raised the prospect that European museums could be next in the Greek and Italian investigators' sights.

Mr Medici said 90 percent of all antiquities had been bought and sold illegally and revealed that his clients included the Museum of Copenhagen.

Greece has already launched its own suit against the Getty museum by presenting archaeological evidence proving the Greek origin of four items ranking among the masterpieces of its collection. They include a gold funerary wreath, an inscribed tombstone and a marble torso, all purchased by Ms True. The fourth item, an archaic votive relief, was bought in 1955 by the museum's founder, J Paul Getty.