- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2007


It used to be so easy for the “tombaroli,” Italy’s tomb raiders. Pietro Casasanta had no Indiana Jones-type escapes from angry natives or booby-trapped temples. He worked undisturbed in daylight with a bulldozer, posing as a construction worker to become one of Italy’s most successful plunderers of archaeological treasures.

When he wasn’t in prison, the convicted looter operated for decades in this countryside area outside Rome, benefiting from what he says was lax surveillance that enabled him to dig into ancient Roman villas and unearth statues, pottery and other artifacts that he then sold for millions of dollars on the illegal antiquities market.

“Nobody cared, and there was so much money going around,” Mr. Casasanta says. “I always worked during the day, with the same hours as construction crews, because at night it was easier to get noticed and to make mistakes.”

Mr. Casasanta was the prince of the tombaroli, and some of his finds are priceless.

The tombaroli are dwindling, however.

Police and prosecutors believe they are beginning to see results in efforts to combat the traffic of stolen or illegally excavated antiquities, which they say made their way to the world’s top museums and collectors.

Gen. Giovanni Nistri, who heads the art squad with the Carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary police, says that in 2006 his unit discovered fewer than 40 illegal digs. In the late 1990s, that figure could soar to more than 1,000 a year.

“Although there certainly is a number of illegal digs don’t come to light, this is a significant reduction,” Mr. Nistri says in an interview.

In the past decade, Italy has initiated an all-out crackdown. Increased monitoring of archaeological sites has landed diggers such as Mr. Casasanta in jail. International investigations have led to the seizure of treasure-filled warehouses in Switzerland. Italy also has been pressuring some U.S. museums to return artifacts.

It has put the former curator of Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum, Marion True, and art dealer Robert Hecht on trial in Rome over claims they knowingly received dozens of archaeological treasures that had been smuggled out despite laws making all antiquities found in Italy state property. The two Americans deny wrongdoing.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts have agreed to return antiquities — including vases, statues and silver artifacts from Greek, Roman and Etruscan times — in exchange for long-term loans of other treasures. Negotiations between Italy and the Getty so far have failed to yield a deal.

Italy’s efforts have scared museums and the international art market into following stricter guidelines for acquisitions and cutting ties with merchants suspected of buying from the tombaroli, Mr. Nistri says.

Over the past years, the crackdown has been felt on the legal art market, with buyers concentrating more on objects coming from private collections or other legitimate sources, says Mieke Zilverberg, chairwoman of the International Association of Dealers of Ancient Art, based in Amsterdam.

“Prices will never go down now,” she says. “It already was a quietly up-going market, and now with the hassle the Italians made, everybody is focused on buying good things with a legitimate provenance, which means prices go up.”

Miss Zilverberg says dealers and museums are learning their lesson, but she notes that blame for the looting rests also with authorities who didn’t monitor what was happening in their own archaeological back yards.

“For years they let it go and had no control over the illegal diggers; only now they are aware of what happened in the past and are getting it under control,” she says.

Mr. Casasanta agrees that his fellow tomb raiders have fallen on hard times.

“There are no more young recruits; it’s become more difficult to dig and to sell; the whole network of merchants has disappeared,” he says during an interview in his hometown of Anguillara Sabazia, north of Rome.

When Mr. Casasanta started out in the 1950s, he would sell his finds at tiny stalls that openly dealt in antiquities on the streets of Rome. Too poor to get an education, he used part of his earnings to buy secondhand books about archaeology, fueling his growing passion.

The son of a mason, Mr. Casasanta first got interested in ancient relics at age 14 as he accompanied a surveyor on outings in the countryside around Anguillara, an area rich in Etruscan and Roman remains. As he surveyed the fields, pieces of pottery and sculpture brought up by the plow caught his attention.

“This revealed to me that underneath there was another world,” Mr. Casasanta says. “Archaeology is a sickness … once you feel the beauty and fascination of an ancient marble, you’re hooked. It’s like falling in love with a woman; it’s hopeless.”

He soon developed a keen eye for promising sites — sometimes using a friend’s glider to spot them from above but more often by paying attention to details on the ground.

“When I dig, I often know beforehand what I will find, because I have learned to read the land,” he says. “For example, if you see brambles growing tall and yellowish, you know the roots are leaning on buried walls.”

Although the word “tombaroli” comes from “tomba,” Italian for tomb, it is used to describe all antiquities looters. Mr. Casasanta’s targets usually were Roman villas, on which he worked with a bulldozer and a couple of helpers. At such sites, he uncovered statues of emperors and gods as well as what he considers his greatest find — a fourth-century-B.C. ivory mask representing the Greek divinity Apollo.

He unearthed the statue in 1994 and sold it to a Germany-based dealer, although Mr. Casasanta maintains he was cheated and received less than a 10th of the agreed-upon $10 million. In revenge, he reported the dealer to authorities, and Italian police ultimately recovered the mask in London in 2003. It is displayed in Rome’s National Roman Museum.

The former raider says he has spent about nine years in jail and on probation, always returning easily to his old habits in years when Italian police faced huge challenges from organized crime and political terrorism and had fewer resources for the protection of cultural heritage.

In the highest-profile case, he was caught in 1992 when one of his workers turned him in following the stunning discovery of the Capitoline Triad, a statue depicting Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.

Mr. Casasanta made millions on the illegal market, although he won’t say exactly how much, but he lost most of his fortune to gambling and police seizures.

Facing large legal fees, Mr. Casasanta retired with his wife to a small house in Anguillara, which juts out into the waters of Lake Bracciano. Many townspeople address him admiringly as “professore” when they find him chain-smoking at a cafe table along the lake shore.

Now 69, ailing and leaning heavily on a cane, Mr. Casasanta insists he only dug up treasures in areas that were threatened by development projects that would have destroyed the ancient artifacts.

However, Paolo Ferri, the prosecutor in the True case, says the tombaroli are a threat to Italy’s cultural heritage not only because their finds disappear abroad, but also because their digging methods are often brutal and damaging.

“Casasanta feels like a hero, and it’s true that he has made exceptional discoveries,” Mr. Ferri says. “But the tombaroli dig in search of a specific object, the most important one. They take that one and destroy the rest.”

Italian police face new and old challenges. Thefts in churches, libraries and state archives have increased in recent years, and the Carabinieri are still seeking more than 2.5 million missing objects registered in the art squad’s database, Mr. Nistri says.

Mr. Casasanta is convinced that the heyday of the tombaroli will return.

“The interest in archaeology never fades,” he says. “We’ll be back.”

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