Crackdown Curbs Italy's 'Tomb Raiders'

The Associated Press
Thursday, July 5, 2007; 2:20 PM

ANGUILLARA SABAZIA, Italy -- It used to be so easy for the "tombaroli," Italy's tomb raiders.

Pietro Casasanta had no Indiana Jones-type escapes from angry natives or booby-trapped temples. He worked undisturbed in daylight with a bulldozer, posing as a construction worker to become one of Italy's most successful plunderers of archaeological treasures.

When he wasn't in prison, the convicted looter operated for decades in this countryside area outside Rome, benefiting from what he says was lax surveillance that allowed him to dig into ancient Roman villas and unearth statues, pottery and other artifacts which he then sold for millions of dollars on the illegal antiquities market.

"Nobody cared, and there was so much money going around," he recalled in an interview with The Associated Press. "I always worked during the day, with the same hours as construction crews, because at night it was easier to get noticed and to make mistakes."

Casasanta was the prince of the tombaroli, as the looters are known in Italy _ and some of his finds are priceless.

But the tombaroli are dwindling.

Police and prosecutors believe they are beginning to see results in efforts to combat the traffic of stolen or illegally excavated antiquities which they say made their way to the world's top museums and collectors.

Gen. Giovanni Nistri, who heads the art squad with the Carabinieri, Italy's paramilitary police, said that in 2006 his unit discovered fewer than 40 illegal digs. In the late 1990s that figure could soar to more than 1,000 a year.

"Although there is certainly a number of illegal digs that don't come to light, this is a significant reduction," Nistri said in an interview.

In the last decade Italy has launched an all-out crackdown. Increased monitoring of archaeological sites has landed diggers like Casasanta in jail. International probes have led to the seizure of treasure-filled warehouses in Switzerland. And Italy has been pressuring some U.S. museums to return artifacts.

It has put the former curator of Los Angeles' J. Paul Getty Museum, Marion True, and art dealer Robert Hecht, on trial in Rome over allegations of knowingly receiving dozens of archaeological treasures that were smuggled out despite laws making all antiquities found in Italy state property. The two Americans deny wrongdoing.

New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Arts have agreed to return antiquities _ including vases, statues and silver artifacts from Greek, Roman and Etruscan times _ in exchange for long-term loans of other treasures. Negotiations between Italy and the Getty have so far failed to yield a deal.

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