For over a century, Roman and Etruscan treasures have been robbed from world heritage sites and tombs. Entire families have made looting a profession handed down from father to son. A guaranteed road to riches that begins with stealing and ends with art dealers and auction rooms all over the world. And it’s still going on. But the authorities are hitting back.
Looting Etruscan treasures – the activities of the Tombaroli
Thousands of Etruscan tombs have been plundered in recent decades by unscrupulous thieves known as the ‘Tombaroli’. Sounds rather amusing – like a name for a circus troupe. But the Tombaroli have wrecked the remains of countless 2,000 year-old burial sites, stolen the contents, and flogged them on the international arts market. Some of the Tombaroli are so successful that they earn a salary, as opposed to being paid per find.
There is a complex organisational structure within which the Tombaroli operate that includes intermediaries, smugglers, restorers, and dealers. Overlooking much of this activity is the shadowy presence of organised crime. For global art market centres like London, the tendency has been to play down these brazen acts of theft that deliver stunning ancient items for sale – often fetching huge sums.
In 1995, Italian police discovered a written organigram in a raid mapping out the route antiquities took at that time from the tombaroli in certain parts of Italy to named dealers in the United States and Paris. Everybody in the chain knew their role and the origin of what they were handling.
Some dealers, as Italian police reported in 2015, even forge provenance papers to fool museums and private collectors. Though one wonders whether some buyers indulge in a degree of wishful thinking or turn a blind eye to the truth.
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Looting Roman treasures – Pompeii and Herculaneum
Incredibly, the tombaroli have extended their multi-generational family business of antique theft to sites like Pompeii. Their methodology is to begin digging a tunnel from a home or an abandoned building close to the Roman site. These exploratory tunnels can extend for forty metres and involve smashing through the buried walls of ancient Roman buildings and looting what lies within.
Italy’s Carabinieri (police) has a stolen art squad which in 2020 pounced on 24 illegal digs, arrested 68 thieves, and 17,503 archaeological artefacts. In truth, given the mixed record of the Italian authorities in stopping this kind of activity, one feels these statistics mask a far greater figure for treasures spirited out of the country and into the global art markets.
However, despite the depressing catalogue of Etruscan and Roman items stolen and exported, there have been some success stories when it comes to repatriation. In 2022, the Getty Museum in Los Angeles returned three life-sized statues from around 350BC titled Orpheus and the Sirens. They had been bought in 1976 from a Swiss bank and since 2006 were on a list of stolen treasures compiled by the Italian government.
In January 2023, an exquisite fresco from Herculaneum, titled Hercules and the Snake, was returned to Italy. It was displayed alongside an array of Etruscan and Roman busts, vases, plates, helmets, and other antiquities.