Saturday 6 July 2013

Operation Iphigenia

There is a New York Times article about Operation Iphigenia, the story of which broke last week with a news conference at which were shown 21 delicately carved travertine marble urns dating to the Hellenistic period and  belonging, it seems, to the Cacni family, a wealthy local clan, and date from the third and second centuries B.C.:
As tomb heists go, it was an odd job. The robbers were not professional tombaroli, the looters of ancient sites who have over the centuries despoiled countless graves in Italy. They were people, the authorities said, who had stumbled onto a trove of important Etruscan artifacts a decade ago while digging to build a garage in a villa just outside the city center here. Rather than notify authorities, investigators say the looters divided up the stash and looked around for years before trying to cash in on their good fortune. [...]  Had the discoverers notified the authorities when they stumbled upon the tomb, they could have benefited from a finder’s fee — 25 percent of an object’s market value for the person who found it, and 25 percent to the person on whose property it was found. Ms. Cenciaioli estimated that the average market price for an urn would be around 40,000 euros (about $52,000) — less for those without decoration, more for those with — meaning the finder’s fee could have topped 10,000 euros (about $13,000) for one urn. “It can add up to a tidy sum,” she said. 
The finders however figured they could get more by selling the artefacts (by long-established law property of the Italian state) on the black market abroad. It seems they waited a decade (problems with fining a buyer or a cynical move to approach a 'they-can't-touch-you-for-it' statute of limitations span?). They then tried to flog off their national heritage to a dealer with no-questions-asking clients. They were unsuccessful. The police were waiting for them.
Investigators have identified five suspects and view them as “white-collar” types [...].  If the suspects are charged and convicted, they could face up to 10 years in prison. But the case still might not get to trial because the statute of limitations for the crimes of which they are suspected — illegal excavation and receiving stolen goods — may run out. Last week, Massimo Bray, Italy’s culture minister, pledged to push for a bill to toughen penalties for cultural property crimes.
 The soil of Italy contains many sites where digging will reveal saleable collectable items, and it is hard to know how much is being dug up illicitly. “I suspect that many finds slip through our fingers,” one police investigator is quoted as saying.  This is why vigilance at the other end of the chain, on the antiquities market is so important. Some might observe that the importance of looted material to the antiquities market might be a very good explanation of why dealers and collectors in some quarters of that antiquities market are so against transparency and invigilation.

Elisabetta Povoledo, 'Tale of Glorious Art and Not So Glorious Thieves: Etruscan Artifacts Looted by Amateurs Are Prize Objects', New York Times July 5, 2013

Vignette: Euripedes wrote a play about Iphigenia, but there were no artefact thieves involved in the plot.

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