Ancient Greek pottery vessels mined illegally in Calabria seized by European police forces in Operation “Archaeans”. Photo: Europol
A massive police operation codenamed “Achaeans" against treasure hunting and the trafficking of archaeological artifacts carried out in Italy, France, Germany, Serbia, and the UK, has led to the arrests of 23 suspects and the seizure of some 10,000 artifacts from the Italian region of Calabria (Reggio di Calabria).
The seized cultural items plundered in Calabria are Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman, Europol, the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, has announced.
Operation “Achaeans" (“Achei" in Italian) designed to crack down on Italian archaeological trafficking has involved more than 350 police officers in four EU member states and EU candidate Serbia, supported by Europol (within the framework of EMPACT) and Eurojust, the EU agency for judicial cooperation on criminal matters.
The operation has included 80 house searches, and has led to the dismantling of an international organized crime group involved in large-scale trafficking of looted archaeological items.
Around 10,000 Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman archaeological artifacts looted by treasure hunters in Italy’s Reggio di Calabria have been confiscated in Operation “Achaeans”. Photos: Europol
Operation Achei, was led by the Italian Carabinieri Department for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (Carabinieri), and also included the French OCBC (Office central de lutte contre le trafic de biens culturels), the German Bavarian LKA (Bayerisches Landeskriminalamt), the Serbian Criminal Investigations Directorate and the British Metropolitan Police Service – London.
“The investigation began in 2017 to fight the looting of archaeological sites in Calabria, Southern Italy, where the cultural heritage includes important traces from the Greek and Roman period," Europol says.
“The investigations have revealed that the illegal excavations by the treasure hunters in the Italian region of Calabria were managed by a well-structured organized crime group able to carry out all phases of the trafficking," it adds.
The EU police agency reveals that the different rings of the busted criminal network, led by two Calabrians living in the province of Crotone, included looters, fences, intermediaries and mules operating from different Italian regions.
Other key facilitators coordinating the supply chain of the illegally extracted Ancient Greek and Ancient Roman artifacts from Calabria were also acting from Djion, France; Munich, Germany; London, the UK; and Vrsac, Serbia.
“The damage caused to the Italian cultural heritage by this criminal group is very significant as it the criminals were looting archaeological sites for many years," emphasizes Europol.
The treasure hunting mobsters from Italy’s Reggio di Calabria controlled all phases of the international trafficking. Map: Wikipedia
It also notes that the Europol Analysis Project FURTUM supported the investigation against the Italian treasure hunting and antiques trafficking network by coordinating the information exchange, holding several operational meetings, preparing the action day and providing on-the-spot analytical support in Italy to cross-check operational information against Europol’s databases.
The other EU agency involved, Eurojust, supported the execution of the European Investigation Orders, and arranged a coordination center to follow the action in real-time.
Treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques have been rampant in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communism regime in 1989 (and allegedly before that). Estimates vary but some consider this the second most profitable activity for the Bulgarian mafia after drug trafficking.
An estimate made in November 2014 by the Forum Association, a NGO, suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from about 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are impoverished low-level diggers.
According to an estimate by Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the Sofia-based National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, up to USD 1 billion worth of archaeological artifacts might be smuggled out of Bulgaria annually.
According to the estimate of another archaeologist from the Institute, Assoc. Prof. Sergey Torbatov, there might be as many as 500,000 people dealing with treasure hunting in Bulgaria.
One of the most compelling reports in international media on Bulgaria’s treasure hunting plight is the 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past" (in which Ivan Dikov served as a fixer). Focusing on the fate of the Ancient Roman colony Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria, the film makes it clear that treasure hunting destruction happens all over the country on a daily basis.