POLICE and archaeologists were searching yesterday through hundreds of ancient relics discovered in a luxury villa on a tiny Greek island that some say could have been the hub of a huge antiquities smuggling racket for years.
Police think that the case may be linked to Marion True, the former curator of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, who is on trial in Rome on charges of conspiring to traffic in stolen antiquities.
Acting on a tip-off, police raided a secluded seaside villa on Schinoussa, an islet in the Cyclades archipelago, halfway between mainland Greece and Turkey. The raid turned up priceless artefacts spanning the Ancient, Early Christian and Byzantine eras. One shipping container outside the villa was found to hold an entire ancient temple.
“We’re still counting and classifying the antiquities,” a Culture Ministry official said. “We will have a clearer picture of what is going on in a few days.” Ministry sources said that the concentration of such a large number of relics on private premises in such a small place could signal that Schinoussa was an unobtrusive hub for antiquities smugglers.
Despina Papadimitriou, the owner of the villa, is a member of a Greek shipping family that lives in London. Her lawyers said that she was willing to co-operate in the investigation. Her late brother, Christos Michailidis, was an antiquities dealer.
Schinoussa is inhabited mainly by fishermen, except for the sprawling villa complex facing a secluded cove. Residents said that work on the complex had been going on for at least 30 years. The villas are ringed by high walls and guarded by dogs. Police became suspicious of Schinoussa after antiquities were seized in two houses on the neighbouring resort island of Paros.
Police said that one of these houses is owned by Ms True. Ionnis Diotis, an Athens investigator, will travel to Los Angeles to examine possible Greek connections to the Getty case. Ms True, 57, is on trial with Robert Hecht Jr, 86, a Swiss-American art dealer.
Both deny charges that they knowingly bought stolen artefacts for the Getty, the richest art institution in the world. They face prison sentences of up to ten years if convicted.
The trial, which began in November, is seen in Italy as a test case for the trade in stolen antiquities and artworks, many of which are sold to dealers — and hence to important museums or private collectors — by criminals who steal from excavation sites.
The hundreds of relics dicovered so far in and around the Papadimitriou villa include temple parts, statues and busts, ceramic vessels, coins and Byzantine-era icons.
The private possession of ancient and medieval artefacts is an offence in Greece.
The more than 1,400 islands in the Aegean Sea are a continuing headache for the Greek coastguard. Schinoussa is easily overlooked in favour of its bigger, touristy neighbours, Paros, Naxos and Amorgos.
Remote Aegean islands, once the home of pirates, can be refuges for modern criminals. The most notorious is Alexander Giotopoulos, who was arrested in the summer of 2002 on the islet of Lipsi and convicted of heading the November 17 terrorist organisation, which had murdered Brigadier Stephen Saunders, a British military attaché, two years earlier.
There are some photos ... this is pretty major.
Random update: as I kill time waiting for the shower, I did some googling and came across this interesting little essay on 'expert witnesses' ... scroll down to the fourth page and the tenth footnote and there's an interesting cluster of names.