Rome, September 19 - Italian police have blocked a group of art traffickers poised to sell a huge haul of artefacts plundered from ancient sites around the country.
The looted property, bought from tomb raiders, comprises a thousand "priceless" objects including some 10,000 ancient coins, some of them pre-Roman, police said.
Their total value is estimated at 3-5 million euros.
Oil-lamps and other objects have been identified as coming from the workshops of one of Rome's most famous craftsmen, Caius Oppius Restitutus, whose works are particularly prized on the illegal art market.
Other included funerary objects from the tomb of a Roman child, probably taken from a tomb in Puglia (Roman Apulia). "This is an amazing haul and proof that we are intensifying our efforts to stamp out illicit trading in antiquities," said the head of the Carabinieri's special unit for protecting Italy's cultural heritage, General Ugo Zottin.
"We got to the traffickers as they were about to move the objects through various outlets in Verona, Bolzano and Rimini - some of them quite respectable establishments".
"It just goes to show that you have to keep an eye out everywhere," Zottin added.
The art cops said the coins, lamps and other artefacts were believed to have travelled through the Republic of San Marino, where they were provided with counterfeit documents attesting to a supposedly legal provenance.
Among 26 people arrested was a 60-year-old Italian dealer resident in England who was caught about to cross the Italian border into Austria.
Restitutus, who was active between 90 and 140 AD, had a huge business and is known to have exported his wares all around the Mediterranean from a large foundry on Rome's Janiculum Hill.
Among the coins recovered were some that for the first time attest to the use of bronze in money used before the first official Roman mint opened. Italy has stepped up its fight against tomb raiding and has forged deals where foreign galleries return allegedly plundered art in return for temporary loans of similar exhibits.
The first-ever trial of a US antiquities curator recently opened in Rome. She is charged with buying falsely certified artefacts allegedly stolen from various Italian sites.