Police have arrested an international ring of traffickers alleged to have smuggled thousands of stolen Sicilian archaeological treasures worth more than £30 million to collectors and auction houses across Europe.
A British art dealer and 20 Italians have been arrested, along with one person in Spain and another in Germany, after police identified artefacts looted from Greek and Roman archeological sites in Sicily.
Investigators, who began probing the ring four years ago, said a gang had “systematically looted Sicily’s rich archaeological heritage”, with police recovering more than 25,000 items including ancient coins, statues and pottery.
For decades, it is alleged, a gang has plundered archaeological sites in the provinces of Caltanisetta and Agrigento, where the ancient Greek Valley of the Temples are located, before being sold via auction houses in Germany.
Europol, which financed the meetings between each country’s forces, said that key facilitators in the trafficking ring were “also acting from Barcelona and London, coordinating the supply chain and providing technical support”.
Metropolitan Police officers acting on a European arrest warrant issued by Italian magistrates Wednesday arrested the art dealer, Thomas William Veres, 64, in London, a Carabinieri paramilitary police spokesman told a news conference.
The investigation, code-named ‘Operation Demetra’, is now continuing with a probe of two notable auction houses in Munich, Major Luigi Mancuso said.
Up to 250 officers have already been involved in the search from the Carabinieri, which leads Italy’s efforts to defend its national art treasures and has a special command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage based in Rome.
During searches carried out across Europe yesterday, officers also seized metal detectors among 1,500 tools allegedly used by smuggling gangs to locate artefacts.
Last night, a Met Police spokesman told The Telegraph that officers from the Arts and Antiques unit, in conjunction with the officers from the Extradition Unit, Operation Nexus and Italian police, executed a warrant in Stanmore on Wednesday
“A 64-year-old man was arrested on a European Arrest Warrant and taken to a north London police station. A large quantity of antiquities and coins were seized,” he added.
The Sicilian smuggling operation is alleged to have been masterminded by Francesco Lucerna, 76, another of those arrested Wednesday.
Mr Lucerna regularly dispatched stolen archaeological remains to northern Italy through a network of couriers where they allegedly made contact with Mr Veres’ gang, investigators believe.
The gang also set up workshops where teams of counterfeiters copied some of the archaeological remains and sold replica copies as originals, it is alleged.
Much of the loot was smuggled to Germany.
It had been “cleaned up” with fake attribution of origin and put on the legitimate art market through the auction houses in Munich, police told reporters.
Two Munich auction houses are reportedly under investigation in connection with the smuggling operation.
Among the suspects held across Europe was a 61-year-old Italian arrested in the German town of Ehingen.
Police found €30,000 (£26,000) in cash in his apartment, according to German press reports.
Mr Veres is of Hungarian origin, but said to have lived in Switzerland.
Last year, he was arrested by Spanish police on charges of alleged possession of dozens of stolen treasures.
“The London art merchant Thomas William Veres commanded a transnational criminal holding that was able to traffic considerable quantities of Sicilian archaeological artifacts,” Maj. Mancuso said.
The arrests bring to a close an investigation that began in 2014 when police discovered an illegal archaeological dig in the sleepy Mafia-infested town of Riesi in the impoverished Sicilian province of Caltanisetta.
Spanish Guardia Civil agents nabbed an alleged accomplice in Barcelona, Andrea Palma, 36, an Italian, and German police from Baden-Wurttemberg arrested another alleged gang member in the German town of Edingen, who was identified as another Italian, Rocco Mondello, aged 61.