Bulgarian and Spanish police dismantle cultural goods-smuggling gang that sold archaeological artefacts online
Tens of thousands of archaeological artefacts have been recovered in a major European law enforcement operation designed to crack down on organised criminals involved in the trafficking of cultural goods.
In total, Spanish and Bulgarian investigators taking part in Operation Sardica, which was backed with support from Europol and Eurojust, seized more than 30,000 items in a day of action that took place at the end of last month.
The effort saw officers conduct raids on 17 properties in Spain and Bulgaria, arrest 13 suspected members of the organised smuggling network, and seize €180,000 (£205,063) in cash.
Spain’s Civil Guard said the gang used the internet to sell large numbers of archaeological artefacts that had been stolen from a number of mostly Bulgarian archaeological sites, including Greek and Roman coins, rings, fibulas, ceramics, helmets, funeral urns, lamps, arrowheads and spears.
Items used to locate metal underground such as metal detectors were also found during the property searches, as well as tools to artificially age objects.
Once the items had been excavated, the criminal gang would transport them to Spain, from where they would be sold online on popular auction sites.
On these platforms, the trafficking gang would have users place false bids on items to artificially increase their sale price.
The smugglers are also said to have been involved in the production of counterfeit archaeological items.
Prior to the day of action, investigators were able to establish that while the Spanish end of the criminal enterprise was based mainly in Valencia, it also had a presence in Alicante, Murcia, Segovia and Zaragoza, as well as in Bulgaria.
In a statement, Europol said: “The smooth coordination and exchange of information were instrumental in the success of this investigation. Europol brought together the different involved police forces to help them connect the dots between their own national investigations and provided analytical support before and during the action day.
“A mobile office was deployed on-the-spot in Valencia (Spain) to help with the cross checking of operational information against Europol’s databases, alongside an expert being present at the coordination centre set up at Eurojust to coordinate the execution of the arrest warrants and searches.”
Back in July, a coalition of European law enforcement agencies participated in a Europol-backed operation that resulted in the recovery of some 25,000 stolen archaeological artefacts estimated to be worth €40 million.
Europol said the operation revealed the criminal networks behind the illegal excavation and sale of antiquities across the EU are highly organised.
Tens of thousands of stolen cultural artefacts recovered in raids across Europe
European law enforcement agencies yesterday took part in a Europol-backed operation that resulted in the recovery of some 25,000 stolen archaeological artefacts estimated to be worth €40 million ($47 million).
In a series of coordinated raids across Italy, Germany, Spain and the UK, over 250 detectives searched 40 properties, arresting a total of 23 suspects who were questioned in connection with the seized items.
The operation, which was the culmination of a four-year investigation started by Italian officers specialised in the trafficking of cultural artefacts, revealed that the criminal networks behind the illegal excavation and sale of antiquities across the EU are highly organised.
London-based art dealer William Veres, 64, who was served with an international warrant, is said to have been at the head of the ancient artefact trafficking ring, and stands accused of commissioning the illegal excavation of cultural items from a number of sites in Sicily.
Elsewhere, officers taking part in the operation detained 20 Italian nationals in Italy, one in Spain, and one in Germany.
The tens of thousands of cultural objects impounded by investigators included antique coins, statues and pottery, as well as a number of counterfeit artefacts.
Prior to the day of action, some 3,000 archaeologic goods and 1,200 fake cultural items had already been seized by police in Italy.
Additionally, some 1,500 tools such as metal detectors used by illegal diggers were confiscated.
In a statement, Europol said: “This investigation once more shows that international cooperation is key to the success of such investigations in the field of trafficking of cultural goods, in which artefacts are moved through several EU countries and levels before they are brought to the legal market.
“Europol, with its unique analytical capacity, once again proved its key role as criminal information hub and facilitator of international Law Enforcement cooperation.”
Operation Athena and the Europe-focused Operation Pandora II saw investigators carry out raids on multiple auction houses, museums and private homes in various locations across the globe.
Stolen cultural artefacts are commonly looted during times of conflict, and are routinely used to fund other forms of criminality and terrorist activity.
Before its so-called caliphate was crushed in parts of Iraq and Syria, the United Nations estimated that Daesh was making as much as $200 million a year from selling off looted antiquities.
Global crackdown on the smuggling of cultural artefacts results in seizure of more than 41,000 items
A coalition of law enforcement agencies around the world have seized more than 41,000 items as part of a crackdown on the illegal trafficking of stolen cultural goods.
Organised by the World Customs Organisation (WCO), Interpol and Europol, Operation Athena and the Europe-focused Operation Pandora II resulted in the recovery of cultural artefacts such as furniture, archaeological pieces, paintings, coins, musical instruments and sculptures.
The items were seized during checks conducted at border crossing and airports in more than 80 countries, and raids on multiple auction houses, museums and private homes.
The operation resulted in a total of 101 arrests, and the launch of more than 300 investigations.
In a statement outlining the highlights of the operation, Interpol noted how police in Argentina recovered the shell of a Glyptodon, an extinct mammal. The shell, estimated to be more than one million years old, was on sale for $150,000.
In Brazil, customs officials discovered a marble head hidden in a passenger’s suitcase, while their French counterparts at Gare du Nord railway station in Paris intercepted a painting by Nicolas de Stael worth approximately €500,000 ($616,282) as it was being smuggled on a Eurostar train to London.
During a single operation conducted in Spain, police confiscated more than 2,000 individual cultural items, including numerous coins from Roman and other Empires and archaeological objects made of ceramics, metal and stone.
Over in Greece, police recovered 41 archaeological objects from four properties linked to a national entrepreneur.
Commenting on the seizures, WCO Secretary General Kunio Mikuriya said: “The results of the Operations Athena and Pandora II speak for themselves: cooperation between customs and police can yield excellent results and should be promoted and sustained at all levels. The fight against illicit trafficking of cultural objects has been long neglected by law enforcement agencies, however, we cannot turn a blind eye to it.
“While we lose our common history and identity, the proceeds of trafficking fuel terrorism, conflicts and other criminal activities. We will keep working in this area of enforcement and will soon deploy the first specialized global training curriculum for Customs administrations – a very concrete and hands-on outcome of our common work.”
Noting how the action had taken a significant toll on the organised criminal networks behind the illicit trafficking of cultural goods, Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock said: “For criminals, the black market in works of art is becoming just as lucrative as for drugs, weapons and counterfeit goods. Ancient artefacts also represent a potential source of great wealth for terrorist groups.
“To know what has been stolen and from where is the first step in any investigation, which is why Interpol is continuing to encourage the creation of specialised national unit and databases.”
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9 February 2018
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