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Riccardo De Luca/AP

Italian Officials Retrieve Twice as Much Stolen Artwork in 2008

January 15, 2009 10:29 AM
by Rachel Balik
As part of a greater effort to stop illegal archaeological digs, Italian police recovered artwork worth $243 million from tomb raiders in 2008.

Italian Officials Recover Relics From Illegal Digs

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Italian authorities were aware of 238 illegal archaeological digs spread over the Italian peninsula in 2008, 15 percent more than were discovered in 2007. Police in Italy have greatly increased their efforts to stop these unauthorized digs, Bloomberg News says, and as a result, the monetary value of artwork recovered doubled from 2007 to 2008. In 2008, they recouped 183 million euros worth of artwork, as opposed to 82 million the year before.

Background: Italy’s History with Tomb Raiders

Actual tomb raiders are as real as Indiana Jones’s fear of snakes, but it’s only been recently that Italian police have really gone after the “tombaroli,” as they are called in Italian. By July 2007, the most famous profiteers of the illegal art market, who had previously looted hundreds of sites without interference, were finally facing scrutiny from the authorities. The head of Italy’s art squad told The Washington Post that the number of illegal digs had been dramatically reduced. This effort has been paired with Italy’s fight to recover stolen artwork from international museums and private collectors.

Some of Italy’s greatest treasures have been snatched up by tombaroli and smugglers over the years. In 2003, the Telegraph reported that it took six years for authorities to retrieve a prized, one-of-a-kind ivory sculpture. The sculpture most likely belonged to a Roman emperor and was probably excavated 10 years prior to its recovery by tomb raiders. The person who allegedly possessed the sculpture lived in the U.K. and was under investigation when someone believed to be his lawyer returned numerous pieces.

After prolonged negotiations with the Italian government, several American museums, including the Getty Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Art, and the Cleveland Museum of Art, have removed illegally acquired artwork from their collections and returned the pieces to Italy.

Historical Context: Italy’s ubiquitous archaeological treasures

It has been a challenge to extend Rome’s subway; every time underground digging begins, archaeological treasures crop up. An ongoing $4.7 billion subway construction project has had to pause frequently, as workers unearth ancient buildings, tombs and other valuable relics. Rome has strict laws demanding that all artifacts be studied, so discoveries frequently mean disrupting the natural flow of modern society.

But not everyone wants to follow rules and hand over artifacts to a museum, especially when selling them is so lucrative. Recently, a farmer near Rome uncovered hundreds of items from a 2,600 year-old sanctuary buried underneath his land. But his failure to report his find led to a police investigation in December 2008. He was suspected of trying to sell the relics, which were potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
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