I predicted the other day that the usual culprits in the antiquity collecting world would fail to discuss the raids in Andalusia that led to the arrest of forty people supplying the international market with illicitly-obtained artefacts. It seems I was right, we saw instead some attempts by coin dealers such as Dave Welsh at deflection of attention away from the issue.
It seems it is becoming more difficult for them to ignore the implications of these events in Spain. It was reported today from Madrid that the number of arrests in the operation against a ring illegally dealing in antiquities looted from archaeological sites has risen to eighty-one people. The ring that was broken up operated in several Spanish provinces and had clients in the United States, Britain and Germany.
These arrests were accompanied by 115 searches of a number of premises, and thousands of artefacts were recovered. Most of them (as may be predicted from the preferences of the trade in general) were from Roman times, though there was also a quantity of medieval, Islamic and even prehistoric items. Reports note
"more than 6,000 Roman and medieval coins, arrowheads, brooches of Roman origin, Visigothic earrings and buckles, polished stone axes, steles with inscriptions in Arabic, columns and votive offerings".The report also reveals some of the less savory aspects of the Spanish trade in dugup ancient antiquities. In the modern trade as a whole both deception through fakes as well as dubious auction practices (shill bidding) are endemic. Very often those involved in the trade are also involved in other criminal activities run by criminal organizations. The breaking up of this ring shows clearly that the Spanish market is no exception:
Some of the looted pieces came from the prehistoric sites of Castulo and Los Villares in the southern province of Jaen, and from Calatrava la Vieja in the central region of Ciudad Real, one of the most important Islamic archaeological sites in Spain.
Police also dismantled in Jaen a sophisticated workshop that skillfully restored and, at times, faked archaeological items that they sold as genuine. The criminals would copy an original piece with high-precision tools and age it with chemical and physical processes, making it difficult even for experts to determine if it were a genuine antique or a copy. Afterwards they offered the items on auction Web sites or sold them directly to established customers.Source: EFE, 'Spanish Cops Bring Down Ring That Sold Looted Antiquities' Latin American Herald Tribune, December 11,2010.
Sometimes, as the chief of the police’s cultural-heritage brigade, Antonio Tenorio, said, the crooks submitted phony bids to drive up the prices of their merchandise on Internet auction sites.
Spanish police connect the dismantled organization’s kingpin with a network that launders money through illegal sales of precious metals such as silver and gold.Cops have seized more than 120 kilos of gold and silver, 900,000 euros ($1.2 million) in cash, equipment for smelting metal as well as a machine gun and six other firearms. Meanwhile, around a hundred bank accounts have been frozen in a score of banks, one of them in Switzerland.
UPDATE: See David Gill's excellent Looting Matters post which gives more details Operation Carolina Mosaico: Expoliadores arrested in Spain. It also contains a comment pertinent to the ongoing discussion on certain collectors' forums: "This story should alert any coin dealers who have been buying directly or indirectly from Spain", indeed it should.