Rome unveils record seizure of looted antiquities

Italian police display recovered stolen treasures

Italian art police unveiled their largest-ever single seizure of looted antiquities, comprising more than 5,000 archaeological items, during a press conference at Rome's Terme di Diocleziano museum on 21 January.

The recovered booty includes ancient Greek statues, amphorae, frescoes and vases, all illegally looted from southern Italy. Estimating the seizure's total value at about €50 million, police say it was by far their "largest recovery in history in terms of the quantity and quality of the archaeological treasures."

The works, which date from the eighth century BC to the third century, were discovered during raids on Swiss warehouses belonging to Sicilian former art dealer Gianfranco Becchina, as part of a police investigation.

Prosecutors accuse the Basel-based Becchina and his wife of belonging to a sophisticated antiquities trafficking ring involving tomb raiders in southern Italy and international dealers. Becchina protests his innocence and points out that he has never been convicted of such an offence.

Police say the looted works were sent to Switzerland for restoration before being sold around the world using forged provenance papers, meaning in theory that museums and collectors could buy the artefacts in good faith.

The most valuable piece recovered was a sixth-century BC Corinthian amphora showing the mythical hero Theseus who killed the minotaur, according to Greek legend. Italy's ministry for cultural heritage believes the masterpiece was probably stolen from an Etruscan necropolis.

The works are expected to go on public display in Rome before being sent to various museums in southern Italy.