Operation Ghelas, which has dismantled a major Italian antiquities smuggling operation stretching across Western Europe, will come to a climax in February when 70 defendants are brought before a judge for a preliminary hearing in Gela, southwest Sicily. The investigation, carried out by the Italian Cultural Patrimony Protection (TPC) squad, concluded last summer with an unprecedented 85 indictments and 52 arrests—the biggest bust ever of the tombaroli (“tomb raiders”).
Government officials, teachers and plumbers are among the suspects. Fifteen have already pleaded guilty to various charges, among them carabiniere Carmine Maschio, who admitted to driving loot across the Swiss-Italian border.
Alessandro Sutera Sardo, the public prosecutor, says that more than 2,000 antiquities were recovered, such as amphorae, statues, and coins from major archaeological sites in Sicily, including Morgantina, Syracuse, Selinunte, and Gela, as well as in Puglia and Lazio. He said the “four-celled” network of international collaborators distributed stolen antiquities through intermediaries in Switzerland, Germany, Spain, the UK, and the US, including Munich’s Gorny & Mosch auction house.
The hunt began three years ago after Sicilian police confiscated antiquities and metal detectors from several residents of Gela—notably 43-year-old Orazio Pellegrino, the ringleader of one of the four “cells”—and put them under surveillance. “When we wiretapped their phones, we intercepted frequent conversations to a number in Switzerland, so we realised that they might be selling antiquities to someone there,” Mr Sutera Sardo said.
This led to Francesco Davoli, an Italian taxi driver living in Zurich. With the cooperation of Swiss authorities, his house was searched. Ivo Hoppler, the Swiss prosecutor, told us: “Davoli left to go to work at around 4.30am. We arrived at 6am, and searched for two hours. We found coins packaged in plastic display envelopes.” The taxi driver quickly became the primary informant on the case, fingering several associates and eventually leading police to the Barcelona gallery of Bea Felix Cervera, a well-known dealer.
“We went in with the Spanish policemen and found a hidden door. When he opened it we could not believe our eyes: there were hundreds of precious objects, the majority clearly illegal,” Mr Sutera Sardo told us. The most precious object the Sicilian police recognised was an ancient Roman marble basin that had been stolen from a private house in Rome. The gallery owner is being prosecuted in Spain, and the government has formally invited Italy to take back much of the haul.
The insights gained in Operation Ghelas have furnished leads for other investigations, which have taken the Sicilian TPC squad to Rome in recent weeks.
... hmm ... why is this the first we've heard of Operation Ghelas?
UPDATE: See now David Gill's useful comments on this ...