Treasure Hunters Blow Up Rock Cut Tomb in Olba

I’m a bit confused by this one from Hurriyet:

A 12,000-year-old tomb made of rock in the southern province of Mersin’s Silifke district has been blown up with dynamite by treasure hunters.

The assistant head of Olba archaeological excavations, Murat Özyıldırm said during a visit to the ancient city with his students on March 5, 2011, that he had found a dynamite mechanism in the tomb and saved the tomb by informing the gendarmerie. But treasure hunters finally succeeded in blowing up the tomb this time, after three years, on April 26. In the explosion, a large part of the tomb received great damage.

Gazi University Archaeology Department member and head of the Olba excavations, Professor Emel Erten said the Uzuncaburç gendarmerie station, which had been closed, should be reopened. She said they had been fighting against treasure hunters and have tried to make their voice heard with scientific publications, conferences and through the media.

“For years we have been telling officials, including the Gendarmerie General Command, that the closure of the Uzuncaburç gendarmerie station has helped treasure hunters in Olba. The ancient city has had a watch guard for the last eight months. But this last event proves that it is not enough. Our fears came true and one of the most precious pieces in the ancient city of Olba was damaged greatly,” she said.

Özyıldırım said the closure of the gendarmerie station was an unforgivable mistake. “The Kırobası gendarmerie station, which is half an hour away from Olba, is not able to protect the ancient city,” he said.

via: Treasure hunters destroy tomb

… as far as I’m aware, this is all Seleucid territory and I had always thought these (famous) rock cut tombs in the area were either Hellenistic or Roman. Is that 12 000 years b.p. date correct?

Statue of Demeter Found/Recovered

Brief item from Greek Reporter:

A statue, believed to be the ancient Greek goddess Demeter, has been unearthed at an illegal excavation in Simav, western Turkey. The statue, weighing in at 610kg and standing 2.8 meters tall, was discovered by two Turks, Ramazan C. And Ismail G, 26 and 62 years old respectively, who are alleged to have been conducting illegal excavations in the wider area where the statue was found. The two men were taken into custody by the Turkish police and sent to court.

The head of the statue and the altar, missing during the raid, were later found in a house in the city centre.

In Greek mythology, Demeter, one of Zeus’ sisters, so the story goes, was the goddess of agriculture, nature, abundance and seasons, and mother of Persephone, wife of Hades.

The original article is accompanied by a photo of a statue; it isn’t clear whether this is the statue they found or not …

First Classical Cultural Casualty of the Crimean Crisis?

Tantalizingly brief item from the Kyiv Post:

The director of the Hermitage Museum, Mikhail Piotrovsky, is concerned about the fate of the Scythian gold exhibition, which got lost on the way from Europe to its home – the Museum of Kerch in Crimea.

(Kyiv Post)

That’s all it says … not sure if there’s more behind a pay wall, but an identical piece is up at the Israel Foreign Affairs site. Remember Schliemann’s gold? Hmmmmmmm …

Sentencing in the Olympia Museum Theft

From eKathimerini:

Seven men were sentenced by a Greek court on Wednesday in connection with a high-profile museum robbery in Olympia last year, a judicial source said.

In February 2012, armed thieves broke into a museum dedicated to the ancient Olympic Games and made off with nearly 80 archaeological artefacts.

In November last year, police arrested three suspects trying to sell a Bronze Age gold ring in a hotel in the western city of Patras and subsequently cracked the case, recovering the stolen items.

A 41-year-old man believed to be the brains behind the operation, a 50-year-old former contractor who arranged the sale and a 37-year-old man were all handed seven-year sentences, according to the judicial source.

Two other Greeks were sentenced to six years while two Bulgarians were handed lighter sentences.

Greeces rich archaeological heritage has long been targeted by smugglers.

The Olympia robbery embarrassed the government, raising concerns that layoffs among archaeologists and staff, due to the financial crisis, had left museums vulnerable to theft.

It came just a month after thieves broke into the Athens National Gallery and stole a painting personally gifted to Greece by Spanish-born master Pablo Picasso, in addition to two other artworks.

Previous coverage:

Ganymede Stolen from Carthage!

Haven’t heard much about this in the week since it happened … from Tunisia Live:

Tunisian authorities are on the hunt for a historic statue stolen from the Carthage Paleo-Christian Museum on Friday, November 8.

“Police are conducting an investigation and they arrested members of the museum’s security personnel,” Adnane Louhichi, general director of the National Heritage Institute, told Tunisia Live.

“All scenarios are considered, including the complicity of the museum’s security staff,” Louhichi said.

The statue, which dates back to the fifth century, depicts Ganymede in the company of an eagle. It is 49 centimeters long and made of white marble.

In Greek mythology, Ganymede is a ‘divine hero’ from the city of Troy.

According to Louhichi, this piece “cannot be sold, because it is famous in the entire world.”

Border police, Tunisian airports, and Interpol have all been alerted to avoid any possible smuggling of the Ganymede statue.

Major Bust/Discovery at Lanuvio

From the Gazzetta del Sud:

Police have foiled ‘tomb raiders’ looting an ancient Roman archaeological site near the capital that was previously unknown to the Italian authorities, investigators said on Wednesday. The site is located near the ruins of a temple devoted to Juno ”The Saviour” at Lanuvio, in the Castelli Romani (Castles of Rome) – a cluster of towns southeast of Rome. Investigators saved five marble elements from works of architecture, coins, the ruins of a number of buildings, and over 24,000 terracotta fragments attributable to the late Republican and imperial period. Investigators also found tools presumably being used for archeological theft, including metal detectors, two-way radios. The authorities commandeered 17,000 sq meters of farmland where the ruins of monumental walls were brought to light by the illegal excavation. Lazio regional authorities said the site and artifacts recovered were of great scientific interest due to the size of the discovery, the state of its preservation and the location, near an important Roman temple. Investigators noted that in recent months, 500 cultural works have been seized and five people charged in unrelated operations to protect Italy’s heritage.

The coverage in La Reppubblica downplays the theft side of things and seems to emphasize that this is a major new site … it also include a video of some of the items there: Lanuvio, scoperto sito archeologico La Finanza sventa il saccheggio

Bust in Athens

From eNet:

Among the antiquities found in the man’s possession were 616 ancient artefacts dating from the Neolithic period and over 1,200 ancient coins, mainly from the Hellenistic period, and two Roman-era medals

A 53-year-old man has been arrested after police found rare objects dating from the Neolithic period in his possession.

In a planned operation, police moved in to arrest the man at a carpark at the Flisvou marina, in the southern Athens suburb of Paleo Faliro.

Police seized 616 ancient artefacts dating from the Neolithic period and 840 ancient coins, mainly from the Hellenistic period.

In a subsequent search of a man’s house, in the city of Larisa in Thessaly, police found and seized 391 additional coins from various eras and two Roman-era medals.

Police are continuing their investigation.

The man will be brought before an Athens prosecutor.

Here’s a photo of one of the objects recovered:

Hellenic Police via eNet

… not sure why this item looks familiar …

Bust in Cyprus

Brief item from the Cyprus Mail:

TWO MEN, aged 26 and 65 were arrested late Friday in connection with a case of antiquities theft. According to a police spokesman a 26-year Syrian man had three amphorae in his possession which he was planning to sell for €900. He told police he had stolen them from a house in Limassol which belongs to the 65-year Greek-Cypriot who was also arrested on suspicion of possessing them illegally.

Police found two more amphorae at the man’s house. All five items were taken to an archaeologist who determined they dated from the early and mid Bronze Age and fell under the Antiquities Act. The 26-year-old was held for questioning while the 65-year-old was written up and released until a later date.

Winged Seahorse Returns to Turkey

From Today’s Zaman:

A winged seahorse brooch, one of the most precious pieces in the Croesus Treasure, which was stolen from a museum in Turkey in 2005 and recently found in Germany, was returned to Turkey on Wednesday.

In November of last year, then-Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay announced that the famed brooch had been located in Germany and would be returned to Turkey soon. No information was revealed as to how it was found.

The brooch, which is worth millions of Turkish lira, was found to have been stolen from the Uşak Archaeology Museum, where it had been on display, and switched with a fake sometime between March and August of 2005, and it remained missing until being located in Germany.

The Croesus Treasure, a collection of artifacts from the time of King Croesus’s rule of the Lydian Kingdom between 560 and 547 B.C., is on display in the Uşak Archeology Museum. The treasure contains 363 valuable Lydian artifacts originating from Uşak province in western Turkey, which were the subject of a legal battle between Turkey and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York from 1987-1993. The artifacts were returned to Turkey in 1993 after the museum admitted it had known the objects were stolen when they had purchased them.

In case you missed it a few years ago, the Croesus Theft was an Inside Job…

(Not Recently) Looted Odyssey Mosaics Followup!

Even though I’ve been wandering along the internet superhighway for a couple of decades, I still marvel at the communication opportunities it offers which would have boggled the minds of folks even three decades ago.  Outside of several instances of me watching assorted international sporting events from my comfy chair in Southern Ontario while chatting about same with fellow-Classicist Terrence Lockyer in South Africa, yesterday’s events are a prime example. As folks know, I had mentioned the looting of 18 mosaics depicting scenes from the Odyssey in my Explorator newsletter and here at rogueclassicism (Odyssey Mosaics Stolen!!!) . In the latter format, I noted how it was rather strange that none of the reports (and the AFP item spawned quite a bit of coverage) mention where or when these things were looted. So after posting all that, I went out to run some errands prior to visiting my mother in hospital (she’s fine) and was sitting down for a hamburger lunch and was reading through my twitter feed. Our friend Dorothy King (of PhDiva and Lootbusters  fame) is currently sojourning in Istanbul and mentioned that the stories of looting at Hamas were less-than-accurate. And so began a twitter/email conversation between two Classics/Archaeologist bloggers, neither of whom were in their ‘home port’ about some mosaics in Syria.

As Dr King mentioned, these mosaics don’t seem to have been recently stolen. They are already in Interpol’s database and were taken from the Hama museum in Apamea last year, it seems (if I’m reading Interpol’s news release from May of 2012 correctly). There are several pages of photos at the Lootbusters site …

An article in Time magazine last September was one of many news reports suggesting antiquities were being sold to fund the rebels (Syria’s Looted Past: How Ancient Artifacts Are Being Traded for Guns).  That said, however, the clearly deliberate vagaries of the most recent announcement suggest  that Syria’s ‘official’ channels are clearly playing up the looting aspect to gain political points in the Western media and as such, cause me to genuinely wonder who is doing the looting, the extent of it,  and for what purposes.  Indeed, in yesterday’s post we mentioned that many of the articles about this ‘Odyssey’ incident were accompanied by a photo of rebels sitting under a Roman mosaic … here’s the photo:

via France24

… what is being implied? The France24 coverage also includes this one:

via France24

Some poking around suggests these photos come from the Musée de Ma’aret el-Nu’man, which appears to have been shelled, like many museums in Syria. There’s a very interesting facebook page: Le patrimoine archéologique syrien en danger which has a number of other photos of this particular museum, e.g., this page from three months ago: Musée de Ma’aret el-Nu’man … and this one: Musée de Ma’aret el-Nu’man, which includes a photo of the museum six months ago prior to the shelling (and it includes a photo of the mosaic the rebels are sitting beneath). The photos are also at the facebook page of the Musée de Ma’aret el-Nu’man.  Some photos from ‘more peaceful times’  are available here. Clearly, this museum is full of mosaics. Has it been looted? Or have the rebels been actually protecting it? I really don’t want to venture an opinion on this, but we’re clearly not getting the full story and judgement must be suspended on what’s being pillaged, when, and by whom.

UPDATE (a few hours later): here’s Dorothy King’s views: Syria … Looting?

Odyssey Mosaics Stolen!!!

Just this a.m. in our Explorator newsletter we were mentioning how looting of antiquities was funding the revolution in Syria … and now my spiders bring in some horrible news from AFP via  the Global Post:

At least 18 ancient mosaics depicting scenes from Homer’s “The Odyssey” have been stolen in northern Syria, the culture minister was quoted as saying on Sunday.

“These mosaics were stolen during illegal excavations” on archaeological sites in the war-torn country’s northeast, Lubana Mushaweh said in an interview published on Sunday by the government daily Tishreen.

“We have been informed that these mosaics are now on the Syrian-Lebanese border,” she said without elaborating.

As the nearly two-year Syrian revolt has morphed into an armed insurgency, experts say fierce fighting and deteriorating security have left the country’s extraordinary archaeological heritage susceptible to damage and prey to a rising number of looters.

The minister said that an Aramaic gold-plated bronze statue was stolen from the Hama museum, a raging front in the war between loyalist troops and rebels.

Mushaweh admitted that her ministry faced great difficulties in “safeguarding 10,000 historical sites scattered around Syria,” cautioning against illegal excavations “which could damage some sites and buried cities.”

But she insisted that museums across the country were “well guarded” and “their prized possessions for all humanity have been archived and placed in very secure locations”.
[...]

… I can’t track down from what museum or site these were stolen from (“illegal excavations”) and if they were already known or not … the only photos that seem to accompany articles are some rebels sitting under a Roman mosaic that I don’t think (or hope) is related …

Corruption Scandal at Pompeii!

This one’s snaking through the various British papers … the Guardian seems to have the most details:

Italian police have arrested a former restorer of Pompeii on corruption charges and are investigating five others, including the former commissioner appointed to deal with the increasing degradation of the historic site.

Italy declared a state of emergency in 2008 at Pompeii after archaeologists and art historians complained about the poor upkeep of the crumbling site, pointing to mismanagement and lack of investment. A special commissioner, Marcello Fiori, was also appointed for the Unesco world heritage site, an ancient Roman city which was buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

But investigators say Fiori and the director of restoration at the time, Luigi D’Amora, awarded irregular contracts to the restoration services company Caccavo and paid inflated prices for its work. Collapsed walls and columns since 2008 have renewed concerns about the condition of the site.

Prosecutors say the officials broke the terms of the state of emergency, overspent on various restoration projects and agreed to non-essential work on Pompeii, one of Italy’s most popular attractions, visited by 2.5 million tourists each year. They have accused Fiori of abuse of office while D’Amora is being investigated for fraud.

Police have put Annamaria Caccavo under house arrest and are investigating her for aiding abuse of office, corrupting a public official and fraud.

The company has been banned from doing business with public administration and police have ordered the seizure of €810,788 worth of its assets. Three engineers are also being investigated for fraud and corruption.

The accused parties were not immediately available for comment.

… sadly, whenever we read about funding for Pompeii, I’ve always had this incident from five or six years ago lurking in the back of my head: Pompeii Vandalism

Sphinx Recovered

Almost missed this one as something for rogueclassicism (as opposed to the ANE section of Explorator) … from the Gazzetta del Sud:

Italian police on Thursday recovered an antique Egyptian sphinx sculpture that was about to be exported out of Italy. The sphinx, recovered near an Etruscan necropolis, measures 120 x 60 cm and is made of African granite. Police found the object already wrapped and packed in a box and hidden in a greenhouse. According to investigators, the sphinx was probably part of the decorations of an Etruscan nobleman’s tomb or country villa. Chance played a part in the find. Police uncovered the sphinx after a stopping a truck for a check and found it was carrying antique ceramics from an archaeological site along with a series of pictures which depicted the sphinx. After searching the driver’s house, other elements related to the sphinx were found, all taken illegally from archaeological sites. Aside from its possible economic value, the presence of the sphinx is, according to experts, an indicator of the thriving trade that took place among Mediterranean countries. Italy began importing objects from Egypt around the 1st century BC, when Rome conquered the North African country. Trade grew during the imperial years, in particular between the end of the 1st century and the beginning of the 2nd century AD.

… kind of nice that the attendant speculation on this one seems reasonable for a change.

Looted Hippodrome Relief

I watched the Seven Wonders of Ancient Rome (see next post) in the hopes that it might go into some detail about chariot racing … it does, but doesn’t mention what I hoped it would as a sort of introduction to this piece. Ages ago (indeed, I’m sure she’s given up on me) Dorothy King passed along a link to a page on her Lootbusters site which includes this  relief stolen from the Castel Sant’ Elia:

via Lootbusters

As Dr King notes, this item has been published:

Lise Vogel, “Circus Race Scenes in the Early Roman Empire,” The Art Bulletin Vol. 51, No. 2 (Jun., 1969), pp. 155-160

As Vogel relates, the relief was found in 1948 at Castel Sant’ Elia and originally was associated with an inscription, some of the letters of which are apparently still visible but not in the available photos (Dr King has another photo on her site mentioned above). The relief shows two quadrigae running left to right in front of a spina, with a third quadriga pursuing. Expanding on this description, we note that it appears that the first two have just crossed the finish line and it is what in modern times would be called a photo finish. There is an important detail in the back which isn’t mentioned and is a bit of a rarity in artistic depictions of chariot races: the ‘eggs’. As readers might be aware, these ‘eggs’ were used to mark the number of laps completed in the race. As a lap was completed, the ‘egg’ was ‘dropped’, so to speak. With one ‘egg’ remaining, this is obviously the final lap. As such, this is one of a few depictions that I’ve seen which actually use the eggs to highlight what section of the race is at and clearly this is the finish of what must have been a very famous race — most other depictions of races which include the eggs tend to have them at the same level, probably indicating the start of a race or not really being concerned with that sort of thing. Here’s one piece of comparanda from a sarcophagus in the Pergamon Museum (via the Database of Ancient Art):

via the Database of Ancient Art

Whatever the case, the inscription which accompanied the Sant’Elia relief likely referred to the race either in the context of the person sponsoring them or (more likely) the charioteer who won. It is an important piece, obviously, and hopefully it will be recovered …

Stolen Sarcophagus Recovered

This one’s interesting, given that we were pondering the origins of that sarcophagus in the sea near Antalya t’other day … from the Local:

A Roman sarcophagus, believed to have been excavated illegally from an archaeological site close to Turkey’s Antalya, has been seized by authorities from a Swiss warehouse, a customs official said on Monday.

The marble tomb, bearing carvings depicting the 12 labours of Hercules, dates to 2 AD.

It was found by customs officials who were carrying out inventory checks at Geneva’s tax-free warehouses, said Jean-Marc Renaud, who heads Switzerland’s central customs services, confirming a Swiss television report.

According to Swiss television, Ankara is seeking restitution of the sarcophagus believed to have originated from the Greek-Roman archaeological site of Perge, about 22 kilometres from Antalya.

Swiss customs are currently holding the object, and have brought the case to Geneva prosecutors which opened a probe last year.

From the Italian Press: Major Bust in Italy

Not sure if this will get coverage in English or not … from Il Tempo:

Sono 70 gli indagati nell’inchiesta condotta dai Carabinieri del Nucleo tutela patrimonio culturale di Cosenza che ha consentito di recuperare 17mila reperti archeologici. Le investigazioni hanno preso spunto dall’individuazione di un personaggio della provincia di Crotone, abitualmente dedito alla illecita ricerca sul territorio calabrese e alla commercializzazione di beni di natura archeologica mediante l’aggiudicazione di aste ed inserzioni online. I successivi approfondimenti investigativi hanno consentito di ricostruire la consistenza dell’intero traffico illecito degli ultimi anni e di identificare gli operatori del mercato clandestino di riferimento. A questo punto, sono stati avviati mirati accertamenti finalizzati a stabilire la provenienza dei beni archeologici commercializzati e la loro lecita detenzione. Accertata la presunta illiceita’ dell’attivita’ posta in essere e’ stata eseguita una perquisizione, e successivo sequestro, ordinata dalla Procura della Repubblica di Crotone. L’indagine che e’ stata condotta in varie fasi e localita’ del territorio nazionale ha portato alla denuncia di 70 persone per reati che vanno dalla ricettazione alle violazioni al Testo Unico sui beni culturali. Sono stati sequestrati 16.344 reperti archeologici tra cui oltre 15mila monete in argento e bronzo di epoca magno greca, romana e bizantina; 10 metal detector; 1.200 reperti archeologici, consistenti in vasi ceramici, fibule, anelli, bottoni, pesi da telaio e monili in ceramica; 42 reperti di natura paleontologica. Completati gli esami di rito i reperti archeologici saranno, al piu’ presto, messi a disposizione delle competenti Soprintendenze Archeologiche per consentirne la fruibilita’ pubblica e gli opportuni approfondimenti scientifici.

The gist: of the 17 000 items recovered, 15 000 or so were silver or bronze coins; the remainder were ceramics, pins, loom weights, etc. from Magna Grecia, Roman, and Byzantine times. They appear to have been selling things online in various places …

Bulgarian Bust Followup: It Ain’t Aphrodite

One of the things we posted t’other day detailed the bust of a smuggling ring in Bulgaria who/which had in its possession a two-metre sculpture of Aphrodite. Today Novinite suggests there are questions about that identification:

The 2-meter antique statue, which was found buried in the back yard of a Bulgarian village house belonging to illegal treasure hunters, is not of Aphrodite, as the police, who seized it, initially believed.

Petar Banov, archeology expert from the Regional History Museum in the northern city of Pleven told the Bulgarian National Radio, BNR, that the statue is a Roman tomb sculpture of an ordinary woman.

Banov pointed out the find has no signs and symbols around her legs and/or arms, designating the female figure as a goddess, adding it was made during the flourishing of the ancient Roman city of Ulpia Oescus on the Danube, close to the village of Gigen in the Pleven District.

Banov, however, explained the archeological value of the discovery is still very high because it is of great quality and craftsmanship and it would give historians precious information.

According to the expert, it would be very hard to make a monetary appraisal of the statute because Bulgaria does not have an official antiques market and auctions.

… here’s a photo … I really don’t see how anyone could have called that an Aphrodite other than to further sensationalize the story:

Novinite photo

via: Bulgarian Expert: Seized Statue Is Not Aphrodite

Bits of the ‘Lava Treasure’ Recovered by French Police

From Reuters:

French police said on Wednesday they had seized a significant portion of an ancient Roman treasure that was discovered more than two decades ago by Corsican divers who became rich by secretly selling it off.

The seizure is the latest chapter in the exploits of a then young Corsican and two friends who spotted gold in shallow waters 25 years ago while diving for sea urchins off the coast of the Mediterranean island.

The three friends enriched themselves by selling the coins and medallions on the black market and later claimed that they had inherited them when the source of their newfound wealth was discovered by the local authorities.

Police did not say on Wednesday from whom they had recovered the latest portion of the treasure, which likely came from an ancient shipwreck. Specialists consider the find to be one of the most important related to ancient coins, dating from the 3rd century AD.

“This submerged treasure, identified as a maritime cultural asset, belongs to the state,” France’s national police said in a statement, after a long investigation into national and international black markets for antiquities.

One of the original three Corsican friends, Felix Biancamaria, told French daily Liberation in 2005 how the discovery of what he quickly suspected were Roman coins brought him and his fellow divers untold wealth and thrills until the party soured when local police caught wind of their exploits.

Rather than turn the treasure over to authorities as state property, the divers claimed they had inherited it and began selling it to dealers. However the flood of rare Roman coins on the market eventually raised questions among collectors.

“People thought we were part of a gang of armed robbers,” Biancamaria said, describing how the three friends would dive all day for treasure and spend their evenings quaffing champagne in nightclubs.

The three men were among eight people tried in 1994 in connection with the case. They were handed prison sentences of between six and 18 months and made to pay fines.

One of the divers, Marc Cotoni, was killed in a shooting in 2004, according to French media.

Five other people were arrested last week in Paris in connection with the case, a judicial source said.

The recently seized coins, together with a prized golden plate, are estimated to have a value of between 1 million and 2 million euros ($1.38 million to $2.76 million), police said.

An investigation is still underway to track down other items from the treasure that remain missing.

Other coverage:

 

A Major Bulgarian Bust

From the Sofia News Agency … it would be nice to have photos of some of this stuff:

Bulgarian police have shattered a crime group trafficking archaeological finds, including breath-taking items such as 2-meter marble statue of Aphrodite.

The organized crime group carried out illegal archaeological digs at the ancient Roman city of Ulpia Oescus on the Danube, close to the village of Gigen, Pleven District.

The five busted men had been watched by the police for five months.

In addition to the marvelous statue of the Greek goddess of love Aphrodite, the police seized from the treasure hunters about 200 various Ancient Roman coins, small metal statuettes, parts of Roman horse ammunition, and stone images of gods Asklepius and Hygiea.

The statue of Aphrodite was found buried in the yard of a house in the village of Gigen, where the treasure hunters hid it.

The police believe the statue was probably dug out in 2006 or 2007 and had been hidden as the dealers awaited the right clients.

The special operation was carried out by the unit for fighting trafficking of cultural heritage items.

Ulpia Oescus was an ancient town in Moesia, northwest of the modern Bulgarian city of Pleven, near the village of Gigen. It is a Daco-Moesian toponym. According to Ptolemy, it was a Triballian town, of the Ancient Thracian tribe Triballi, but it later became Roman. It was one of the most important Roman towns on the lower Danube.

This is where Emperor Constantine I the Great built the largest river bridge in ancient times, Constantine’s Bridge on the Danube, which was 2.5 km long, 6 meters wide, and existed in 328 AD – ca. 355 AD.

(The “next” bridge (today’s Ruse-Giurgiu Bridge) on the Lower Danube, in the Bulgarian-Romanian section of the river was built only in 1954, about 1 600 years later, at the initiative of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.)

Thus, Ulpia Oescus was linked by a bridge over Danube with the ancient city of Sucidava (modern day Corabia – Romania) by Constantin the Great.

Unlike Colonia Ulpia Ratiaria near Archar on the Danube, another major Roman stronghold utterly destroyed by Bulgarian treasure hunters, Ulpia Oescus near Gigen is believed to be one of the top archaeology spots in Bulgaria that is relatively well-protected from treasure hunters’ raids.

Questionable Antiquities in Madrid

Way back when the ‘museum case’ was just getting under way I wondered why the focus seemed to be only on American museums … now, it appears, with the trial of Gianfranco Becchina commencing, European museums might be coming into view. Here’s a very interesting item on same from the Art Newspaper:

Madrid’s National Archaeological Museum, founded in 1867, may have acquired 22 antiquities that were illegally excavated and exported from Italy. Research suggests that the objects may have passed through the hands of antiquities dealers Giacomo Medici and Gianfranco Becchina. Medici was discovered with a store full of antiquities, photographs (many of them Polaroids without any scientific method) and documents, in Geneva in 1995, while Becchina was identified as the owner of three warehouses in Basel in 2001, allegedly containing thousands of suspicious artefacts and photographs, along with an archive of files on clients, shipping documents, invoices and bank statements. Medici was finally found guilty in 2009 in Rome of trafficking in antiquities (he is appealing: he initially received ten years in prison, reduced by two on first appeal, and a €10m fine payable to the state as compensation for damage to Italy’s cultural heritage), while the trial of Becchina is now beginning. He denies charges of trafficking in illegally excavated antiquities.

The history

One of the consequences of the virulent grande razzia (“great raid”) of antiquities across Italy that began in the early 1970s (involving at least one million illegally excavated objects introduced to the market and often sold abroad, ten thousand investigations, and the ransacking of tens of thousands of archaeological sites), is the dispersal of illegally excavated artefacts around the world, where they have become rootless, reduced to mere pieces of furniture, dumb objects no longer able to connect us with the ancient world from where they originated. Such a dispersal was inevitable in a business that has a rather different way of operating than archaeology (although in certain cases it was at least done in good faith, on the part of the buyers, if not on the part of the dealers): the “traffickers” laundered their spoils in exactly the same way that the mafia launders its “narco dollars”. They would make use of the major auction houses, usually in London, sometimes employing aliases but often under their own names or through their own companies, and sell objects of deeply suspect provenance. These they would occasionally buy back themselves, thus giving the objects a far less suspicious history, and meaning that the sellers had then effectively dictated their worth.

Consequently these antiquities, wrenched from the past, ended up all over the place. The American museums in particular almost fell over each other to get their hands on the most attractive ones, often knowingly buying objects of shadowy provenance, from unscrupulous dealers or middlemen acting on behalf of the tombaroli (tomb robbers) and excavators. However, a number of highly respected historic institutions also got caught up in the archaeological “black market” trap, institutions which in all likelihood had no idea where the amphorae, vases, kantharoi and kylikes they were buying came from. In these cases, they were certainly not doing anything illegal; but such activities raise an ethical question. Is it right, or moral, for museums (places established to conserve and exhibit objects, but also to educate and promote culture) to display artefacts plundered after the 1970 Unesco Convention, (on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property) rather than, as in centuries past, during wars and conquests? What type of “culture” are these museums exhibiting, promoting and teaching: the culture of clandestine excavations and fraud?

Buying the objects

The objects in question were bought by the Madrid museum in 1999, as part of a major collection of 181 ancient artefacts from the Etruscan period, Ancient Greece, Rome, Egypt and Spain, spanning the fifth century BC to the fifth century AD. The museum (founded during the reign of Isabella II, with three floors of antiquities housed in the same building as the Royal Library and over one million pieces from the prehistoric period onwards in its 39 rooms), paid $12m to the 82-year-old collector and entrepreneur José Luis Várez Fisa for the collection. Fisa, included in ARTnews’ annual list of the world’s top 200 collectors in 2009, also owns paintings by Goya and Velázquez, and was a patron of the Prado museum until he resigned following the decision to transfer Picasso’s most famous painting, Guernica, to the Centro Reina Sofía. The archaeological museum’s then director, Miguel Angel Elvira Barba, said in 1999: “We have taken an enormous step forward both in terms of quality and quantity; [this] collection now puts us among the ranks of the greatest museums in Europe and the US.”

The investigation

The collection was exhibited in autumn 2003, accompanied by a 500-page catalogue. In 2006, the Italian archaeologist Daniela Rizzo from the Villa Giulia in Rome and document expert Maurizio Pellegrini, both of whom have assisted Prosecutor Paolo Giorgio Ferri in the case against Giacomo Medici, came across the catalogue. They have been working on a database of tens of thousands of objects that they believe were secretly and illegally excavated from Italy, and put up for sale from the 1970s onwards, many of which have been traced back to the confiscated archives belonging to Medici and Becchina. They have spent so many hours poring over these images that they are now able to almost instantly identify them and, in only a few days, were able to match items from the catalogue with pictures seized in the police raids.

They believe that 22 of the artefacts in the Madrid museum’s 2003 catalogue also appear in Medici’s and Becchina’s confiscated photos (comparison above). A few of them show objects still covered in mud—suggesting they had been recently (and illegally) unearthed—while others show the pieces in fragments, before the dealers sent them to be professionally restored. One object, an Apulian Bell Krater from 330BC that was later sold by Sotheby’s, appeared in a picture belonging to Medici that appears to have been taken in the Zurich workshop of the art restorers Fritz and Harry Bürki, a father-and-son team to whom leading antiquities dealer Robert Hecht (whose separate trial in Rome relating to the illicit trade is likely to end without a verdict because it has run out of time) sent works for restoration.

Some of the objects in the Madrid catalogue have been published before, including in the German review Munzen und Medaillen, whose late owner was a close friend of Becchina, or by the leading New York antiquarian, Jerome Eisenberg, of the Royal-Athena Galleries. His gallery has “sold more than 30,000 masterpieces to major museums in the US and Europe”, according to its website and boasts “the largest selection of antique objects in the world”. Nine of the Madrid artefacts were first published by Eisenberg between 1993 and 1997, in volumes of the gallery’s Art of the Ancient World. (Eisenberg counters that all the objects in his catalogues between 1988 and 2005 were checked by the Italian police, and that all—apart from eight objects that he voluntarily returned to Italy in 2007—were cleared by them.)

Felicity Nicholson, head of antiquities at Sotheby’s in London, is reported to have told Prosecutor Ferri that Medici had been her main client at antiquities auctions and that he would sell objects under two aliases and buy them back in person. In the Medici depository in Geneva, dozens of objects carried the Sotheby’s label. A photo of a vase is accompanied by a note by Robert Hecht, handwritten in red with lots of exclamation marks: “The amphora sent to Sotheby’s is not the one that was bought!” But if Medici was highly active in London, he was also doing good business in New York. Between 1991 and 1995 his dummy company, Editions Services, bought 135 lots at Sotheby’s auctions. The London branch alone supplied the Italian judges with three substantial volumes of documentation detailing its relationship with Medici (and this was still described as “incomplete” at his sentencing). As of 1997, Sotheby’s ceased holding antiquities sales in London.

The “trafficking” link

Other artefacts in Madrid were unpublished until the 2003 catalogue. Becchina’s archive contains photographs of both sides of an Oriental-style Italic Amphora with a Wounded Deer from the seventh century BC, height 52cm, whose dimensions are clearly important enough to note down. The Madrid catalogue, showing a similar object, says of its provenance that “the location is unknown, making it difficult to ascribe it to a specific Italic workshop”. A negative from Medici’s confiscated archive depicts an Etruscan Oinochoe from 600BC: the Madrid catalogue of a similar piece says that the “provenance is Cerveteri”, but also that it was acquired “from the Swiss antiquarian market”. It was first published in Munzen und Medaillen.

Another Attic Amphora with Black Figures Preparing to Set Off in Chariots of around 520BC, attributed to the Priam Painter, was published in December 1997 in a Sotheby’s New York catalogue. However, Pellegrini says that three Polaroids from the Medici archive show the same object before restoration and covered in concretions, suggesting that it had only recently been excavated. Pellegrini also says it “appeared” in another portfolio, confiscated from a villa in the Cyclades belonging to the former art dealer Robin Symes, by the Greek police during their investigations into alleged looting.

Medici also had two photos of another, unpublished, object, a large Amphora with Black Figures Depicting Herakles Fighting the Amazons from the late sixth century BC, measuring almost half a metre in height, and attributed by the museum to the Antimenes Painter. The photos in Medici’s possession show it still in fragments. Two more of Medici’s negatives show both sides of an Amphora with Black Figures Depicting Herakles Fighting Triton from 530BC, which probably belonged to the same set of grave goods. The object was sold at Sotheby’s New York on 22 May 1989.

Who is to blame?

It is important to note that there is no evidence of any dealing between José Luis Várez Fisa and Becchina or Medici, despite the large amount of paperwork seized from the pair, or that Fisa was aware of any problems in the provenance of the objects he acquired. It also the case that the widespread trafficking in illegally excavated antiquities since the 1970s until very recently (despite the 1970 Unesco Convention designed to curb the illicit trade) has meant that objects have inadvertently entered private and museum collections (although higher standards of due diligence over provenance-checking among museums are now the norm). Meanwhile, requests to the Madrid museum from The Art Newspaper to comment on these allegations remained unanswered at time of publication.

Nevertheless the case demonstrates how easily all too many recent private collections were formed, and how some of the world’s most important museums (and not only those who knowingly connived to buy objects directly from the “traffickers”), bought antiquities that had been completely decontextualised from their past, with origins were at best extremely obscure. Will the Italian state try to reclaim at least some of the more important artefacts taken from under its soil? And, now that the National Archaeological Museum of Madrid knows all about the illicit provenance of many of its artefacts, will it pretend that nothing has happened? Indifference, surely, is not an option.

via: Looted from Italy and now in a major Spanish museum? | The Art Newspaper

The original article includes photos of some of the objects … As always in such situations, it’s useful to see David Gill’s comments on the situation

Another Bulgarian Bust … Coins This Time

I’m always curious what happens to the artifacts ‘after’ …

A young Bulgarian in possession of 130 ancient coins was stopped on the Greece-Turkey border, police in the north-eastern Greek city of Komotini announced today.

Intercepted at the border crossing in the town of Kastanies yesterday, the man – whose identity has not been revealed, had over 100 coins dating to the ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine eras, which he claimed he had found in the Turkish countryside using special detection equipment, Dimitris Hotzidis, head of customs in Kastanies, told Greek news agency ANA.

The coins have been transferred to archaeological authorities in Komotini, and the Bulgarian has been passed on to prosecutors in the nearby city of Orestiada.

According to police in Komotini, cited by international media, theft and trafficking of archaeological artefacts has been on the rise in the last couple of months, particularly between Greece and Bulgaria.

via Bulgarian Caught with 130 Ancient Coins on Greece-Turkey Border | Balkan Travellers.

Purloined Kouroi Recovered

Getty Images via ABC

Kouros-style marble statues, dated to the 6th century BC, are displayed on Tuesday at the National Archaeological Museum in central Athens.

The priceless artifacts were recovered by authorities three days ago during a sting operation in the Corinth prefecture of southern Greece, and specifically near the village of Klenia, which is located in vicinity of ancient Nemea. Two local men, identified as farmers, were charged with antiquities smuggling, while another is wanted.

The wanted man is allegedly the mastermind of the ring and has a previous criminal record with antiquities smuggling offenses.

According to reports, the two statues were dug up in the area eight months ago. The emblematic kouros, kouroi in the plural, were presented to the press during World Museum Day.

Speaking at the museum, Culture and Tourism Minister Pavlos Geroulanos and Greek Police (EL.AS) Chief Eleftherios Economou detailed the efforts made by authorities to apprehend the suspects as well as an ongoing probe into possible overseas buyers.

The sculptures, 1.82 and 1.78 meters tall, are considered unique works dating back to the late 6th century BC. According to archaeologists, the fact that makes them unique is that they are almost identical works sharing the same facial characteristics.

The damage observed on them, cut limbs and a head is recent and probably caused by excavation machinery, although archaeologists said the statues will be restored in full.

via Priceless ancient statues recovered by authorities.

Plenty of press piling up on this one (I’ll add some more later) … a thought that just occurred to me was that these are probably depicting Cleobis and Biton, no? One or both of them were victors at Nemea and statuary of them might be appropriately found in that vicinity …

Addenda: the Cleobis and Biton claim comes from a paper by M. Miller; see, however: Sophocles S. Markianos, “The Chronology of the Herodotean Solon “Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte, Vol. 23, No. 1 (1st Qtr., 1974), pp. 1-20, esp. the discussion in note  66 (sorry! had 23 there before … reading on a small screen) (The Miller paper is referenced there as well).

More coverage:

Another Bulgarian Bust

Bulgarian police have captured a number of invaluable archaeological finds in a police operation in Sofia and the eastern town of Stara Zagora.

The operation was carried out by the Unit for Combating the Traffic of Cultural and Historical Items of the main directorate for fighting organized crime (GDBOP), the police directorate in the city of Sliven announced.

In Sofia, the police searched about several addresses where they seized two ancient ceramic vessels, 9 silver Roman coins, an ancient bronze application with a silver image of Medusa, and a metal detector.

Simultaneously, the police searched two locations in Nova Zagora where they found over 500 ancient coins, jewelry, medallions, ceramic figurines and vessels, horns encrusted with horns, a bronze head – all from the period of Ancient Greece, Thrace and Rome.

In addition, the police discovered several artifacts dated back to the Middle Ages, “of high historical and artistic value” which are not described in detail by the police.

One man who is known to be a treasure hunter and dealer of antiques has been detained in Nova Zagora.

via Bulgaria Police Capture Archaeology Treasures in Crackdown | Sofia News Agency.

Bust in Sparta

Vague details, as often:

Two local men were arrested on antiquities smuggling charges on Monday in the southern Peloponnese town of Sparta, after authorities discovered a cache of particular valuable objects in the pair’s possession, including a bronze Kouros-like statuette.    Four ancient coins and precious stone weighing in at more than 500 grams were also confiscated.    Additionally, handguns, ammunition and precision scales were uncovered during a search of the men’s residences.

via Antiquities smuggling arrests in Sparta | ANA.

Robin Symes Fallout

This one doesn’t seem to have received as much coverage as I thought it would … from the CBC:

Italian authorities and antiquities experts are upset the British government is allowing the sale of about 1,000 artifacts allegedly stolen from Italy in order to pay the debts of a bankrupt collector.

The items are from the collection of Robin Symes, a U.K. dealer who has been linked to a smuggling ring. Symes built up a massive business selling antiquities to major institutions around the world including the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

The Italian authorities charged Marion True, former curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, with dealing in stolen antiquities. She is still facing those charges. The Getty has returned more than three dozen items to Italy.

The far-reaching investigation into the sale of looted items is ongoing and Symes is still under scrutiny by Italian officials.

Symes went bankrupt in 2005 after a legal dispute with the family of his late business partner.

The British government has given the green light for the sale of Symes’s collection which includes Roman bronzes, Etruscan gold, amber necklaces, ancient statues and other valuable pieces. The sale will be handled by liquidators acting for the U.K. government, which is trying to recoup unpaid taxes from Symes.

According to The Guardian newspaper, Paolo Giorgio Ferri, the main prosecutor in Rome, has repeatedly asked Britain to return the antiquities to their “rightful owner.”

Meanwhile, the Home Office — the department handling foreign affairs — has responded by asking the Italian government for details on how those antiquities arrived in Britain.

Colin Renfrew, a professor of archeology at Cambridge University, calls the situation a “scandal.”

“Many of the antiquities are Etruscan and could only have been found in Italy, ” Renfrew told The Guardian. “They left Italy illegally because they would require an export licence. I can’t see how the Home Office can dispute that.”

Sale of the collection is expected to raise more than £100,000 ($155,000). There’s no word yet on when the sale is to take place.

via Italy angered by U.K. antiquities sale | CBC.

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