The great smash and grab

Italy is a treasure trove of buried antiquities. But now they are being systematically plundered by illegal tomb-raiders, who operate with virtual impunity. Rose George follows the loot from the hills of Lazio to London's thriving black market
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The Independent Online

In an ordinary living-room in an ordinary, small Italian town, a young man shows off an ashtray. "Nice, isn't it?" says "Gianni", who prefers not to reveal his real name. The "ashtray" is a terracotta-coloured dish, painted around the rim, cracked and repaired. It looks nothing special, but it is, because it's about 2,600 years old, because it was looted at night from a tomb in a field nearby, and because by keeping it on his mother's sideboard, Gianni and his mother are criminals.

In an ordinary living-room in an ordinary, small Italian town, a young man shows off an ashtray. "Nice, isn't it?" says "Gianni", who prefers not to reveal his real name. The "ashtray" is a terracotta-coloured dish, painted around the rim, cracked and repaired. It looks nothing special, but it is, because it's about 2,600 years old, because it was looted at night from a tomb in a field nearby, and because by keeping it on his mother's sideboard, Gianni and his mother are criminals.

Italy is one of the most historically rich countries in the world, with 100,000 churches, 3,500 museums and 6,000 registered archaeological sites. By a 1902 Italian law, no private citizen can own a cultural artefact. Any antiquity sent out of the country needs an export licence. On paper, the trade and market in antiquities is regulated by some of the strictest laws in the world. In practice, Italy is as pillaged, ravished and raided as Iraq, but without the headlines.

Until last year, that is, when MPs from Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party made a stunning suggestion. As an amendment to the 2005 budget bill, they said, why not let anyone in possession of a cultural artefact - even if stolen - be allowed to keep it by paying 5 per cent of its value to the state? The value, said MP Gianfranco Conte, would be decided by the Archeological Superintendency, Italy's archaeological authority, and if the Superintendency didn't decide a price in time, by the finder. It was an amnesty that would enable people to legalise their possessions, he said, just like Berlusconi's 2001 amnesty that allowed property illegally acquired abroad to be brought into Italy, or the 2003 one that legalised buildings erected in contravention of planning laws. Both those amnesties caused controversy; this one caused uproar. Italy's former culture minister, Giovanna Melandri, called it an "incitement to rob". Colonel Giovanni Pastore, vice-commander of the Carabinieri Unit for Safeguarding Cultural Protection, or art squad, wants to be diplomatic, but even he calls it "scandalous". Professor Salvatore Settis, a leading archaeologist and head of Pisa's Scuola Normale - Italy's Oxbridge - called it "shameful" and "an invitation to do-it-yourself archeological digging."

As if there aren't problems enough. Looting is an ancient activity. The Romans raided * Etruscan tombs for bronze and gold. Eighteenth and 19th-century gentlemen considered tomb-raiding a polite activity. But the early 21st century is boom-time. Looters these days have better technology and better networks. The market for illegal antiquities from Italy, says Annamaria Moretti, the archaeological superintendent for Lazio, "is flourishing" The loot always finds buyers. And the buyers are invariably, somewhere along the line, based in Britain.

The global looting market - worth £1bn a year, according to some - always flows one way: from antiquities-rich countries to rich countries. From Italy, Peru, Iraq, Cambodia, looted artefacts usually pass through London, the biggest legal and illegal art market in the world. Then they end up in private collections, which you'd expect, and in museums, which you might not. In the past, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Paul Getty Museum have both been accused of buying items with murky histories. Sotheby's auction house was exposed by the investigative reporter Peter Watson as a standard transit point for looted southern Italian vases, and closed down its London antiquities auctions as a result. Gianni may be a humble tomb-raider, but he's the first link on a chain that can end with the biggest and most powerful names in art, too close to home for comfort.

As tomb-raiders go, Gianni is a relative novice. But there are plenty of masters around to teach him, such as the prolific local tombarolo who gave his mother the ashtray. Gianni grew up with tombs, because where he lives is packed with them. His small town used to be in Etruria, land of the Etruscans, a people whose heyday was the sixth and fifth centuries BC, and who prized bronze and gold and luxury as much as the dissolute Romans who stamped out their kingdom. More importantly for Gianni, they also buried it, at the conclusion of lavish three-day funeral ceremonies, along with bowls, pots and other income-generating cultural objects. Necropolises abound across this central Italian belt, and though many have been dug up - like the stunning tombs at Cerveteri, an hour from Rome - there are still pickings left for Gianni.

Gianni takes me for a walk near the site of the ancient town of Ferrentum, just off a highway on the way to Viterbo in Lazio. Ferrentum's Roman past has been officially excavated by the Archaeological Superintendency, as an impressive amphitheatre and mosaic floors make clear. But its Etruscan history still lies mostly under the green farmland. Gianni points to the hill opposite. "That's where they'd have lived, and they always put their necropolis on a hill nearby." Gianni has read up on the Etruscans. It's out of genuine curiosity about his ancestors, he says, but he's equally passionate about the tricks for pillaging their tombs. "You make a metal rod," says Gianni. "You can't buy them." He made two from rusting agricultural implements, heating and bending the metal into shape to get a metre-long rod. "You cut a slice into it, like a corkscrew, which gathers the earth, so you can tell if it's tomb earth or not." Then you take your rod, and you go for a walk. To those who can read the land, tomb sites are visible enough: the grass might be drier, because of the empty space underneath. In winter, the snow might look different. Once you've located a potential site, probe the ground with the metal rod until you find nothingness. This may mark the entrance, or dromos, to an Etruscan underground tomb. "You find it by daylight," says Gianni, "then you come back at night." You don't use torches, in case the Carabinieri are around, and it's best to bring at least five men, because the work is hard.

The worst tombaroli then just smash through the ceiling of the tomb. The stupidest go straight in, and "2,500 years go pouf!" because the objects inside disintegrate on exposure to air. The more sensible tombaroli make a hole and leave it for 24 hours for the atmosphere to adjust. Then it's dig and grab.

"They only take the good stuff," says Fausto Cipriani, whose group of volunteer archaeologists in Viterbo is responsible for maintaining the Castel d'Asso necropolis, where 150 tombs have been uncovered and most have been pillaged. "They smash the rest." Popular culture finds tomb-raiding entertaining enough to make films and video-games out of it, but for superintendent Moretti, sitting in her beautiful, antique-stuffed office in the Villa Giulia Etruscan Museum in Rome, Indiana Jones and Lara Croft are no role models. "Illegal digging is endemic in this country, and for every object that ends up on the illegal market, thousands are destroyed. Even if the objects taken are modest pots, the damage done is enormous because the tomb-raider destroys the context. It's not about the loss of beautiful objects, but any objects. The tomb-raider rips a page out of the history book. It is a terrible, terrible phenomenon."

Not to Gianni. He tuts, walking past an opened tomb. "Think how much I could earn if I could find one that hadn't been opened. God! It's not fair!" But neither is a tomb-raider's cut of the profits. "Tomb-raiders are the lowest link on a long chain," says Col. Pastore. "They're usually poor people, farm workers, labourers, people who know the land." And they earn a pittance, usually 1 or 2 per cent of the final price. But it's worthwhile, "because the demand is constant".

Once the loot is stolen, it's sold on to a middleman, probably someone local, but more sophisticated, who can restore the object if necessary. Spruced up, the object heads north, usually to Switzerland, the black hole of illegal antiquities, thanks to a "good-faith acquisition" law that legalised any object present on Swiss soil for five years. It's now been upped to 30 years, but not before "'property of a Swiss gentleman' became a euphemism for 'illicit material'", as archaeologists at Cambridge's McDonald Institute note in their 2000 report, Stealing History.

From Switzerland, the loot heads west. "The UK!" says Col. Pastore, shaking his head in his spacious office in the Baroque building that is the Unit's headquarters in Rome. "It's our biggest headache." Despite overwhelming evidence of how much loot was passing through Britain, until 2002, our government refused to sign the 1970 Unesco Convention on illicit cultural property, and still refuses to sign up to the Unidroit Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported Cultural Objects, the most powerful international agreements. This probably keeps the Elgin Marbles safe, but makes it difficult for the Italians to call on reciprocal laws when they want to recover Italian property.

Things might be changing - last year the Government passed the Dealing in Cultural Objects Act, which makes trading in tainted property an offence punishable by up to seven years in jail. But even the Parliamentary Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has called efforts to counter the trade "lamentable", highlighting the Government's inability to set up a database of looted art, two years on, though a database of second-hand cars was fully functioning. "We would draw attention," wrote the committee, "to a target set for a reduction in vehicle crime by the Prime Minister and recommend that he gives consideration to a similar performance objective for the theft of cultural objects." As things stand, it's better to be an art thief than to nick cars: Italy's art squad has 150 officers, but Scotland Yard has only three, to counter trafficking networks that - like the ones running drugs and women - are sophisticated, well-oiled and usually impossible to break.

In December, though, the Carabinieri had a stunning success. Back in 1995, antiques dealer Giacomo Medici, owner of an antiques shop on Rome's swanky Via del Babuino, had two Geneva warehouses sealed by Swiss police, acting on the request of Carabinieri. The warehouses - kitted out like showrooms, with viewing shelves, tables and chairs - contained 4,000 items of Etruscan, Apulian, Campanian and Roman origin, and photographs of 8,000 others, with no convincing documentation of provenance, all worth about £25m.

In December - the Italian justice system is somewhat clogged - Medici was sentenced to 10 years in jail. It was a rare victory, but the one-off tip of a fast-moving iceberg. The solution to looting, say specialists, is to shame the buyers into not buying. It's unlikely any time soon.

"Over the last 20 years at least," say the authors of Stealing History, "somewhere between 65 per cent and 90 per cent of the antiquities offered for sale on the London auction market have no published provenance." European museums, including the British Museum and the Berlin State Museum, now have strict policies that refuse items with dubious provenance, but American museums usually don't.

Photographs found in Medici's warehouses have been matched to items in the J Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, whose former curator Marion True is currently on trial in Italy for conspiracy to deal in stolen antiquities. The Getty has published an ethical acquisitions policy, and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts reportedly has one too, but questions were asked about some museums' commitment to ethical acquisitions when curators from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the J Paul Getty Museum were invited to the high-profile Berlin conference on illegal antiquities, and none of them showed up.

Prevention is another option, but it doesn't work either. Cerveteri's necropolis is at the end of a country track in a landscape of rolling hills and olive trees. The enclosed site is well kept, and was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site late last year. But outside the fence, Unesco is no use: the land is pitted with tomb-raider holes. A survey of one Etruscan cemetery showed that 400 out of 550 tombs had been pillaged.

The Archaeological Superintendency is notoriously short of resources. Col. Pastore's digital video films of Carabinieri doing patrols in boats, planes and on horseback are impressive, but largely window-dressing. "The patrols are during the day," says Orlando Enriquez, Cerveteri's security guard, "But the tombaroli come at night. What can they do?" Col. Pastore estimates that there are thousands of tombaroli still active, and they hardly ever catch any, usually only when one tombarolo informs on another, for business or grudge reasons. Col. Pastore estimates that they know about only 20 per cent of looted objects. "We only know what's been stolen when we get it back." For every vase that appears on the market, there could have been dozens more broken up or abandoned. When the frenzy of tomb-robbing in Etruria reached its height, about 15 years ago, the robbers simply moved south. Vases from the Roman region of Apulia - modern-day Puglia - have been flooding the market since the 1970s.

Moretti puts her faith in education. She believes outreach work can change public opinion. Fausto Cipriani, whose volunteers do talks in schools, is less optimistic. "The younger ones are interested, but the older ones don't give a shit." Nor does Gianni, a young man on a bad wage who sees Etruria's riches as his entitlement. It's his land, he says, so why shouldn't he take from it? It's an argument bolstered by the resource problems of the Superintendency, which means most items never see a museum display cabinet, because of a lack of funds.

Such was the argument behind the 5 per cent proposal, says MP Gianfranco Conte. It would bring thousands of cultural artefacts to light that people daren't report. It would enrich, not impoverish, Italy's cultural heritage. But earlier this year, the proposal was dropped, when even the Berlusconi-appointed cultural minister, Giovanni Urbani, came out against it. Conte is undeterred and says he will fight for it later. And so is Gianni, who doesn't need a political licence to loot. As long as there are museums and collectors who don't care that their oil lamp was dug up with a metal spike in the dead of night, he'll never be short of a market.

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