Italian police arrest five, recover hundreds of artifacts in crackdown on art trafficking

Italian anti-art theft police arrested five Italians and were investigating an 82-year-old Austrian tour guide and 28 other people after hundreds of smuggled, ancient artifacts were found in the guide's home in the Austrian town of Linz, authorities said Friday.

The Austrian was believed to have smuggled the objects _ some about 2,700 years old _ from clandestine excavations near Rome during his years as a guide to archaeological sites in Italy, Carabinieri police Col. Ferdinando Musella told reporters in Rome.

Police identified the Austrian only as R.H., a Linz resident. Authorities said he was known as "Mozart" in the art trafficking world. Because of his advanced age, the suspect was not arrested, but was issued a citation, police said.

"His house was just like a museum, with objects on display and ready to be sold," Musella said. Some of the artifacts even had price tags on them, authorities said.

Musella said most of about 600 illegally excavated artifacts dating from between the 8th century B.C. and the 5th century A.D. were found in the guide's home. The treasures, including jewelry, statues and vases, came from the archaeological area of Crustumerium, an ancient city that was later conquered by the Romans.

Some 3,000 more artifacts believed to have been looted by the same network have been found within 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Linz, but still needed study by experts, police said.

Among the arrested Italians were those with records as "tombaroli" _ grave robbers who work often unguarded fields in Etruscan and other areas rich in artifacts, police said. The suspects were picked up about 10 days ago on charges of illegal association with the aim of national and international art trafficking, Musella said.

The charge is one of Italy's weapons for combatting the pillage of its archaeological and artistic treasures.

Italian authorities who work to protect that heritage hailed the yearlong probe, led by Italians and conducted with the help of Austrians, as proof that international collaboration was crucial in discouraging trafficking.

Italy's anti-art theft unit, founded in 1969, monitors some 6,000 archaeological sites. With the country's cultural patrimony so extensive, many sites lack adequate surveillance to discourage theft.

Although tourism is one of Italy's biggest industries, the national budget provides relatively slim funding for protection of cultural heritage, considering how many monuments, artworks and archaeological sites the country has.

The only means of defense "are excavation campaigns ... because if we excavate, they don't," Rome archaeology head Angelo Bottini said, referring to the "tombaroli."

He said he hoped excavations would begin this year at the Crustumerium site.

All of those being investigated in the case are Italian, except for the tour guide, authorities said.

The economic value of the recovered vases, funerary urns and cups has yet to be determined, said archaeologist Nicoletta Pagliardi, one of the experts who examined the objects. But she estimated that one of the objects, a 2,600-old Corinthian cup, was worth several thousand euros (dollars).

Most of the exceptionally well-preserved artifacts came from graves and religious sanctuaries, she said.

The recovered artifacts are likely to go on display in Italian museums, officials said, AP reported.

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