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Modern-day ‘tomb raiders’ feel the heat

Italy's crackdown on archaeological plunderers is turning the country's tomb raiders — or "tombaroli" — into an endangered species.
Pietro Casasanta, a 69-year-old convicted looter of antiquities, leans heavily on a cane as he strolls near the ruins of a Roman palace in Anguillara Sabazia.
Pietro Casasanta, a 69-year-old convicted looter of antiquities, leans heavily on a cane as he strolls near the ruins of a Roman palace in Anguillara Sabazia.Gregorio Borgia / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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 allowed him to dig into ancient Roman villas and unearth statues, pottery and other artifacts which he then sold for millions of dollars on the illegal antiquities market.

“Nobody cared, and there was so much money going around,” he recalled in an interview with The Associated Press. “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.”

Casasanta was the prince of the tombaroli, as the looters are known in Italy — and some of his finds are priceless.

But the tombaroli are dwindling.

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, said 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 is certainly a number of illegal digs that don’t come to light, this is a significant reduction,” Nistri said in an interview.

All-out crackdown
In the last decade Italy has launched an all-out crackdown. Increased monitoring of archaeological sites has landed diggers like Casasanta in jail. International probes have led to the seizure of treasure-filled warehouses in Switzerland. And Italy 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 allegations of knowingly receiving dozens of archaeological treasures that were 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 have so far 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, Nistri said.

Prices rising
Over the last 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, said Mieke Zilverberg, chairwoman of the Amsterdam-based International Association of Dealers of Ancient Art.

“Prices will never go down now,” she said. “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.”

Zilverberg said dealers and museums are learning their lesson, but noted that the blame for the looting rests also with authorities who didn’t monitor what was happening in their own archaeological backyards.

“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 said in a telephone interview.

Not like the old days
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 said in the interview in his hometown of Anguillara Sabazia, north of Rome.

When 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, Casasanta first got interested in ancient relics at 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,” Casasanta said. “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 said. “For example if you see brambles growing tall and yellowish you know the roots are leaning on buried walls.”

Roman villas were a prime target
Although the word “tombaroli” comes from “tomba,” Italian for tomb, it is used to describe all antiquities looters. Casasanta’s targets were usually 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 4th-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 Casasanta maintains he was cheated and received less than a tenth of the $10 million agreed upon. In revenge, he reported the dealer to authorities, and Italian police ultimately recovered the mask in London in 2003. It is now displayed in Rome’s National Roman Museum.

The former raider said 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.

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

Facing large legal fees, 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, Casasanta insists he only dug up treasures in areas that were threatened by development projects that would have destroyed the ancient artifacts.

But Paolo Ferri, the prosecutor in the True case, said 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,” he said. “But the tombaroli dig in search of a specific object, the most important one. They take that one and destroy the rest.”

‘We’ll be back’
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, Nistri said.

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

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