Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Operation Phoenix

The recent display in Italy of items seized from the raid on the island villa of Greek shipping heiress Despoina Papadimitriou was mainly reported from the point of view of the recovery of some Byzantine frescoes ripped from the wall of a south Italian site which the owner of the villa had somehow acquired. Equally interesting was a piece of information which appeared as a footnote to the article in some news sources.
Police also showed off some of the 251 artifacts, worth a total of some euro2 million, discovered as part of another investigation, dubbed Operation Phoenix, into looted antiquities found in Switzerland. The goods were handed over to Italian authorities by two Lebanese brothers who operated a Geneva antiquities gallery. Police said they hoped that such a gesture would be repeated by anyone who had illicit antiquities in their possession.
Two Lebanese brothers had two million euros worth of artefacts which as a result of "Operation Pheonix" now turn out to have been illicitly obtained... Where did they come from? How many artefacts disturbed by the diggings on those sites were merely cast away or separated froim the rest as not worthy of a Geneva gallery of "ancient art"? How much destruction of the archaeological resource was done so Lebanese brothers can attempt to make a cool two million from selected bits of it?

While we may "hope" that anyone who had illicitly obtained artefacts might hand them over to the authorities, the more important thing is that they will hand over the information that will allow the identification and arrest of all those involved down the line in the illegal exploitation of archaeological sites and monuments as a source of collectables for the no-questions-asked market, and all those involved in their distribution. Derek Fincham reporting this asks rhetorically "will there be an end to the cycle of looting, seizures and arrests?". I ask, when will we make a proper beginning commensurate with the scale of the problem and the number (and nature) of the people who seem to be involved?

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