Friday, 10 August 2012

What is Happening to Operation Gelas?

At the end of January 2008 we were hearing a lot about "Operation Ghelas", which was the investigation  by the Italian Cultural Patrimony Protection (TPC) squad, of a major Italian antiquities smuggling operation with links stretching across Western Europe. The investigation the previous summer had resulted in an unprecedented 85 indictments and 52 arrests—the biggest Italian bust ever of so-called tombaroli. The trials of 70 defendants were set to begin in February 2008, in Gela, southwest Sicily they come from a wide area across Sicily including Caltanissetta, Enna, Agrigento, Ragusa, Catania, Siracusa (Syracuse) and Palermo. As the Art Newspaper reported at the time:
Government officials, teachers and plumbers are among the suspects. Fifteen have already pleaded guilty to various charges, among them carabiniere Carmine Maschio, who admitted to driving loot across the Swiss-Italian border. Alessandro Sutera Sardo, the public prosecutor, says that more than 2,000 antiquities were recovered, such as amphorae, statues, and coins from major archaeological sites in Sicily, including Morgantina, Syracuse, Selinunte, and Gela, as well as in Puglia and Lazio. He said the “four-celled” network of international collaborators distributed stolen antiquities through intermediaries in Switzerland, Germany, Spain, the UK, and the US, including Munich’s Gorny & Mosch auction house.
The investigations had started in 2005 when reportedly Sicilian police confiscated  metal detectors and antiquities  from several residents of Gela, including a 43-year-old who was allegedly the ringleader of one of the four “cells”. The men were put under surveillance and their phones were tapped. This revealed that there were frequent calls to a number in Switzerland. This led the authorities to an Italian taxi driver living in Zurich, named by the Arts Newspaper as Francesco Davoli. On searching his house the Swiss authorities found many ancient coins packaged in plastic display envelopes.
The taxi driver quickly became the primary informant on the case, fingering several associates and eventually leading police to the Barcelona gallery of Bea Felix Cervera, a well-known dealer. "We went in with the Spanish policemen and found a hidden door. When he opened it we could not believe our eyes: there were hundreds of precious objects, the majority clearly illegal,” Mr Sutera Sardo told us. [...]. The gallery owner is being prosecuted in Spain, and the government has formally invited Italy to take back much of the haul. 
It seems that other stolen items were acquired by at least two Munich dealers and one in London. More interesting, alongside these items it appears that forgeries were being created:
During the raids in suspects' apartments [January 2007], police also found evidence that as well as smuggling genuine artefacts they also made false ones to sell. Equipment was discovered which was clearly used to make 'ancient' coins and vases.
Despite the attention the case got four years ago, remarkably little interest has been shown in the cases, if indeed they have been going forward. I was only reminded of the affair this morning when reading Fabio Isman's text  'Monete pregiate, è boom di falsi e furti Nel 2011 in Italia 19mila sequestri (Il Gazzettino 9th August 2012) where the link between the Sicilian forgeries and the 'Cabinet W' fake coins is mentioned again (it was David Gill who reminded us of this earlier). So what is going on? Is this another Italian antiquities case (like those of Hecht and True) that is doomed to drag on and on until the statute of limitations applies?

While on the topic, what on earth happened to the case of the alleged forgers of all those Greek vases investigated in the so-called "Operation Nemesis"? This is another one where after an initial fuss and dramatic announcements of success, the trail goes cold and silence descends on the media, leaving us all unsure whether the investigations had in fact uncovered the evidence of what was initially claimed.

Cathryn Drake, 'Italy awaits biggest ever trial of tomb robbers', The Art Newspaper, no. 187, January 28, 2008. (see also here, here and here)
David Gill, 'Operation Ghelas: Some Further Detail', Looting Matters January 29, 2008 (quoting
Anon, 'Italian archaeology smugglers uncovered', Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata, January 31, 2007 which I have not seen).

Vignette: "evil devil coin"  from US seller on a well-known auction site (yes, I know it's a copy/fake/replica, that's the point).

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