Sunday, November 09, 2008

Switzerland to return stolen artifacts to Italy

I was particularly interested in this story because many years ago I was on an archaeological project in Greece and heard a first hand story how prehistoric artifacts had been stolen and ended up in Switzerland.

Switzerland is returning 4,400 ancient artifacts stolen from archaeological sites in Italy, including ceramics, figurines and bronze daggers dating as far back as 2,000 BCE, prosecutors announced.

The transfer will require three tractor-trailers and all but end a seven-year legal battle over the antiquities. They were seized in 2001 in storage rooms belonging to two Basel-based art dealers after a tip-off from Italy, said Markus Melzl, a spokesman for city prosecutors. The couple have since lost several court battles to prevent the antiquities from being returned to Italy, Melzl said.

More than half the objects were from the eastern Italian region of Apulia, an area that was heavily influenced by ancient Greek culture, said Guido Lassau, a Swiss archaeologist who worked on the case. They include richly decorated vases and so-called kraters, large vessels that were used for mixing wine with water. The objects were stolen from upper-class tombs dating from the fifth to third centuries
BCE, according to Lassau. One item that looks like a ceramic mask modeled on a woman's face retains the original water-soluble painting from about 300 BCE.

Other items belong to the pre-Etruscan Villanova culture of northern Italy, and some of the bronze figures appear to have originated on the island of Sardinia. The oldest are bronze daggers thought to be about 4,000 years old, said Lassau. "This is a vast haul on a dramatic scale that would have saturated the market if they had
been sold," he said, adding that very few such items are available through legal channels.

Switzerland was until recently a major hub for the trade in stolen antiquities, but new laws introduced in 2005 have largely shut down the illegal market there, said Lassau. "The market has moved on to Germany, which has far looser laws," he said. "They really need to close the loopholes in their legislation, if they want to stop the global trade in these goods."

Check out a new book called Loot: the Battle over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World by Sharon Waxman -- the problem goes back to the 19th century!

Sources: Associated Press, (6 November 2008)


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