police arrest at least 45 illicit antiquities dealers, with thousands of coins, in Greece

On Saturday, Greek police arrested tens of illicit antiquities dealers, from the largest illicit antiquities network in Greece, in a ‘mousetrap [φάκα]’.

Halkidiki police uncovered the gang [by accident, during a disappearance case].

[Update (5th March 2012): a 68-year-old rang his daughter and told her that he had had an accident, and was trapped in his car; when the police could not find him, they started listening to phone calls for information, and overheard talk of the search for antiquities. Seven months after his disappearance, the police found the 68-year-old dead, ‘[with] a metal detector in his car [στο αυτοκίνητό του… μια συσκευή ανίχνευσης μετάλλων]’.]

Then, over four six months, Greek police investigated the illicit antiquities ring, from its base in Central Macedonia (northern Greece), to its other areas of operation in Thessaly and Sterea (central Greece).

Then, they swooped on at least 30 55 homes in 13 counties in northern Greece. They recovered a mass of antiquities, including more than 4,800 5,000 8,000 9,200 about 9,500 copper/bronze, silver and gold ancient coins; just one of the dozens of dealers had more than 4,000 coins. One of those was an extremely rare coin from the kingdom of Alexander the Great, worth at least four million euros; it depicted Alexander on one side and an eagle on the other side.

Alongside the antiquities, the police found books about antiquities (primarily about coins), metal detectors and a lot of weapons. And they arrested at least 25 35 36 44 45 Greek nationals (ημεδαποί), from farmers to businessmen to shopkeepers and employees, pensioners to civil servants to freelance professionals, from 25 to 74 years old, in (what they believe to be) the furthest-reaching/widest-ranging ring of illicit antiquities dealers in the country. One of the leaders The mastermind was a 65 66-year-old in Gerakarou, the old town of Thessaloniki.

They have intensified their existing investigation, hitting Fthiotida in central Greece; and they have extended it as far as Kavala in Eastern Macedonia and Thrace (north-eastern Greece).(1)  They expect the number of arrests to increase.

The rest of the update (4th March 2012)

The 66-year-old lynch pin mastermind (εγκέφαλος) of the antiquities ring received, valued and sold the artefacts to foreign buyers, often in Britain, Bulgaria, Germany and Switzerland [and the U.S.].  The lynch pin mastermind hand-delivered the goods; or sent them through companies, in special packets of low weight (to avoid arousing suspicion).

According to Voria.gr‘s excellent report (and updates), the police rescued an amazing haul of archaeological artefacts:

  • more than eight thousand 9,200 coins (most of them copper/bronze, some of them silver and gold), the form and appearance of which dates them from the 6th Century BCE to the Byzantine period;
  • one of the coins was an extremely rare extremely rare coin from the kingdom of Alexander the Great;
  • one of the coins may have been an extremely rare Hellenistic silver tetradrachm of Zeus or Heracles;
  • 3 gold mouth covers/mouthpieces;
  • 2 Byzantine wooden diptych images of saints (one 37 by 25cm, one 14 by 11cm);
  • a mass of jewellery, including ‘earrings, necklaces, rings, amulets, arched copper buckles, pins and pendants, possibly derived from illegal excavations of funerary assemblages [ενώτια, περιδέραια, δαχτυλίδια, ψέλλια, χάλκινες τοξωτές πόρπες, περόνες και περίαπτα, προερχόμενα ενδεχομένως από λαθρανασκαφές ταφικών συνόλων]’;
  • small bronze votive statuettes;
  • copper necklace beads;
  • gold-plated clay necklace beads;
  • arrowheads;
  • part of a marble head of a woman, probably from a grave’s headstone; and
  • many 300 other unidentified but priceless antiquities.

There were also ‘a small number of counterfeits/forgeries [ένας μικρός αριθμός κίβδηλων]’, including a ‘fake [απομίμηση]’ of a marble Cycladic figurine and another of a statuette of Aphrodite of Milos (Venus de Milo).
Police also confiscated weapons:

  • 7 revolvers;
  • 3 military rifles;
  • 3 pistols;
  • 1 single-barreled shotgun;
  • 1 modified (sawn-off?) shotgun; and
  • 1 flare gun.

And the police took other objects used in the illicit business:

  • 19 metal detectors;
  • archaeological books and materials (to document the coins);
  • 8,350 euros (at the time of confiscation, worth about £6,964);
  • 69 Bulgarian lev (at the time of confiscation, worth about £29);
  • 47 mobile phones;
  • forged state authorisations/licences, 5 for Greece, 2 for the Netherlands and 1 for Denmark; and
  • a small quantity of narcotics.

Update (5th March 2012)

British, German, Swiss and U.S. markets drive destruction of Greek cultural heritage

Aside from the Greek police’s ability to do excellent work (which should not be forgotten or ignored because of the Olympic museum investigation’s [initial] failure or the Greek riot police’s violence), this operation reminds us that Western markets drive the looting of poor countries.

In particular, during a crisis in which Greece is being forced into penury, during a crisis from which Greece will need cultural tourism to recover, it reminds us that British, German, Swiss and U.S. illicit antiquities markets drive the destruction of Greek cultural heritage.

Gang structure

Indeed, the mastermind – a retired customs official called/codenamed Takis – formed the gang precisely in order to sell to ‘the market in ancient artefacts, primarily in foreign countries [την εμπορία αρχαίων αντικειμένων κυρίως σε χώρες του εξωτερικού]’.

The gang was very thoughtfully structured and managed. Five family members – the mastermind, his two brothers, a daughter-in-law and another, unidentified relative – operated as a task force (επιτελική ομάδα) dedicated to establishing and running the international illicit business. They outsourced the risk of on-demand illicit excavation to individual supplier looters (the other 39 people arrested).

Update (10th March 2012): apparently, a 45th person has been arrested; but it is not clear whether they were a dealer or a looter (or even the Italian contact, arrested by Italian police on the evidence supplied by Greek police).

Code words and wiretapped conversations

In case their phones were wiretapped and their conversations were recorded (as they were), ‘the defendants used using code words, like “lentils” for coins, “little Larissas” for finds from Thessaly or “little Philips” for Macedonia [οι κατηγορούμενοι χρησιμοποιούσαν συνθηματικές φράσεις, όπως «φακές» για τα νομίσματα, «λαρισάκια» για ευρήματα από τη Θεσσαλίας ή «φιλιππάκια» για τη Μακεδονία]’.

Bulgarian transit?

It will be interesting to see the role of the gang in Bulgaria, and the role of Bulgaria in the operations: it may have been a key transit country between the Greek source and the British, German and Swiss markets.

Italian looting?

One contact in Italy had ancient coins, and had sent remittances back to the gang in Greece.

Moment of panic?

The first three arrests were in Kavala; but when police searched the suspects’ properties, they did not find any objects that could be legally classified as cultural heritage (the possession of which, in and of itself, would have constituted a crime). Nonetheless, the police found material that sufficiently suggested violation of cultural heritage law, ‘unlicensed metal detectors [ανιχνευτές μετάλλων που κατείχαν χωρίς άδεια]’ and antiquities books.

Moment of relief?… No.

Israel National News has reported that some of the artefacts recovered in this police operation come from the robbery of the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games. (Hat tip, Marc Balcells.) However, I have not found any corroborating sources in either English-language or Greek-language media.

Update (5th March 2012): police have not found the Olympic museum’s stolen artefacts. Ta Nea have reported that ‘the possibility that objects from the recent robbery at the Olympia Museum are included amongst the finds has been excluded [Αποκλείστηκε το ενδεχόμενο μεταξύ των ευρημάτων να περιλαμβάνονται αντικείμενα της πρόσφατης ληστείας στο Μουσείο της Ολυμπίας]’.

Update (10th March 2012): Paul Barford’s written a great blog post on the Greek Antiquities Bust and the No-Questions-Asked Antiquities Trade.

1. The key towns are Chalkidiki, Drama, Fthiotida, Imathia, Karditsa, Kavala, Kilkis, Larissa, Pella, Pieria, Serres, Thessaloniki, and Trikala.

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