Photograph by Kostas Tsironis, Bloomberg/Getty
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A visitor snaps a photograph of the Parthenon during a recent visit to Athens. With tourism down and the Greek economy struggling under mountainous debt, some Greeks have turned to looting to make ends meet.

Photograph by Kostas Tsironis, Bloomberg/Getty

Strapped for Cash, Some Greeks Turn to Ancient Source of Wealth

Greece’s financial crisis is causing a spike in illegal excavations and swelling the ranks of looters with first-time offenders.

Recently police in Greece have noted a spike in a surprising kind of crime: People with no prior criminal record are looting Greek antiquities.

One sign of the problem: a sharp rise in applications for metal detector permits. Because metal detectors are used to find ancient coins and artifacts, the Greek government tracks purchases of the devices and typically grants use permits only to people without a criminal record. “The numbers have increased, and this is related to the economic crisis,” Lieutenant Monovasios said.

As the Greek economic crisis has intensified over the past five years, police detectives with the Greek Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage have noticed not only that illegal excavations and thefts of archaeological artifacts increased, but also that the typical profile of looters has changed.

Before the crisis, many looters were members of criminal networks that also trafficked in guns and narcotics. Now it appears that regular people with access to tools for digging are unearthing pieces of Greece's past and selling them for quick cash.

This surge comes at a time when agencies charged with protecting the country’s antiquities are underfunded and understaffed because of government budget cuts.

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Two Greek farmers were arrested in 2010 for allegedly digging up these ancient statues and attempting to sell them to a foreign buyer for ten million euros.

Rich in Artifacts, Poor in Police

“We need more staff, more people,” said Evgenios Monovasios, a lieutenant in the Security Police Division of Attica. He estimated that in all of Greece there are roughly 60 employees who work exclusively to prevent and disrupt looting. While cooperation with local police departments across Greece expands this capacity, it’s difficult to monitor more than a fraction of the country’s vast and varied landscape, which ranges from the mountainous north to hundreds of islands in the Aegean and Ionian Seas.

“It would take an army to catch everything,” said Elena Korka, the Director General of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage. “It’s impossible not to find antiquities in Greece; they are literally everywhere.”

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It’s impossible not to find antiquities in Greece; they are literally everywhere.
Elena Korka, Director General of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage

To combat looting, Greek authorities employ tactics that range from undercover police work to international legal negotiations. Lieutenant Monovasios and his colleagues do the detective work of gathering intelligence on suspected looters, mounting raids to recover artifacts, and going undercover to infiltrate looting networks. Korka, who holds a PhD in archaeology, oversees educational campaigns aimed at raising awareness and heads a team dedicated to tracking and recovering looted artifacts that have left Greece.

Greece faces major challenges in protecting its cultural heritage: an abundance of antiquities, limited resources to protect them, strong black market demand for antiquities, and an economic crisis that is swelling the ranks of looters with first-time offenders.

Recent antiquities trafficking cases range from Byzantine manuscripts—stolen from Dionysiou monastery at Mount Athos and recovered from the Getty Museum and Duke University in 2014 and 2015—to a cache of neolithic Cycladic figurines, vessels, and statue parts confiscated in Attica in 2011 with an estimated value of almost twenty million euros.

For every successful recovery or repatriation, however, many other artifacts are slipping beyond Greece’s borders and into private collections.

It's not easy to stem the tide. Monovasios and his team generally build a case against looters by collecting intelligence from confidential informants, Customs and Coast Guard officials, surveillance operations, or undercover officers who have penetrated a looting network. Next they plan either a sting, in which agents pose as prospective buyers, or a raid to recover artifacts and apprehend suspects.

A commission of three archaeologists then inspects all confiscated artifacts to determine their authenticity and to date, identify, and appraise each one. Any illegal excavation carries a mandatory prison sentence of 10 years; sentences become much harsher if the artifacts are valued at more than 150,000 euros.

Dreaming of ‘Mythical Sums’

While there is no such thing as a typical looter in Greece, Monovasios and Sargeant Babis Melistas sketched a general composite picture of who comprises the looting networks and how they function. People whose work involves scrutinizing and sifting earth—farmers, ranchers, or construction workers—often form the initial link in a chain of traffickers.

“People dream of mythical sums,” Melistas said. For those doing the digging, however, the financial reward is typically only a fraction of the final price. In a recent case involving a female statue, the Greek looters made fifty thousand euros; the final sale price was 1.1 million euros.

Most illicit excavations are done at night to decrease the risk of discovery. Once artifacts are found, they are reburied or hidden in improbable locations—in one case, artifacts were stashed in a sheep pen—before being sold to a middleman who owns a legitimate business that can be used to launder the proceeds.

Pottery and statues are typically broken into pieces. This not only facilitates hiding and smuggling the antiquities across international borders, it also allows merchants to blackmail buyers by selling them all but one of the fragments before charging a huge sum for the piece that completes the item.

‘Seasoned’ Artifacts Difficult to Trace

Though certain private collectors place “custom orders” directly with looters, most items are trafficked through middlemen. Irini Stamatoudi, an attorney and consultant who specializes in looted antiquities, has seen objects traverse the globe before finally being offered for sale by auction houses or gallery owners.

“Something might go to Munich, then get sent to Japan, then maybe Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, or China,” she said. Such movement gradually creates the impression of legitimacy. Middlemen exploit widely differing legal standards and port protocols to acquire certificates of export and other documents that create a misleading paper trail.

Once this paperwork has created the illusion of an authentic collection history, the final step is sometimes to loan the object to a small museum for a temporary exhibition.

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The economic crisis is probably temporary, but the negative effects of looting are permanent.
Lieutenant Evgenios Monovasios, Security Police Division of Attica

“Maybe a dealer sends it to some tiny museum in Texas and it’s only on exhibit for 20 days,” Ms. Stamatoudi said. “But after that, the dealers can say ‘Oh look, it’s had an exhibition.’” Small museums often lack the resources to thoroughly investigate the provenance of artifacts. They may also lack online databases of their collections, which makes it more difficult for researchers and prosecutors to detect looted objects they exhibit.

This type of “seasoning” can make it difficult for major auction houses and museums to determine the true origins of an artifact. But Ms. Korka and Ms. Stamatoudi both emphasize that auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s have a financial incentive to trust apparently plausible collection histories.

“They’re not really cooperative,” Ms. Stamatoudi said of the two leading auction houses. “They are attached to the letter rather than the spirit of the law. They might tell you something like, ‘Oh yes, it belonged to some 17th century French nobleman; now you go prove that it came from Greece.’ They know it’s costly to go to court.”

Museums can also be reluctant collaborators. The Getty Museum, for instance, failed to respond to requests from the Greek government for almost four years between 2002 and 2006. “We had to threaten a lawsuit to get a response,” Ms. Korka said.

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Stolen from a Greek monastery and eventually purchased by an American museum, this 12th-century Byzantine New Testament was returned to Greece in 2014.

Returns to Rightful Owner

The past decade has seen some improvement in attitudes towards repatriation. Since 2008, artifacts have been returned from galleries, private collections, and museums in the UK, the United States, the Netherlands, and Germany. Just as revealing of shifting attitudes are the envelopes that Ms. Korka and her team receive from around the world.

“People send back pebbles from the Acropolis or tiny pieces of marble that they picked up from an archaeological site,” she said. “They feel bad, so they return it and apologize.”

Lieutenant Monovasios thinks the best way to decrease looting is through educational outreach that emphasizes how much is lost when looters destroy archaeological sites in search of marketable artifacts. Beyond the loss of scientific information on demography, diets, diseases, trade routes, and countless other topics is a deeper loss that is difficult to articulate.

“By looting you are depriving future generations of identity,” he said. “The economic crisis is probably temporary, but the negative effects of looting are permanent.”

Nikiforos Skoumas contributed reporting from Athens.