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Italian antiquities found in police raid

October 08, 2005|From Reuters

ROME — Italian police said Friday that they had smashed an international antiquities smuggling ring led by an 82-year-old Austrian tour guide nicknamed Mozart.

In a cross-border operation, police said they had arrested five Italian tomb raiders and traced to the Austrian's home some 3,000 archeological treasures, most of them originating from sites near Rome.

More than 600 other artifacts were found in Italy in the possession of tomb raiders the Austrian employed, police said.

"It is a great find and a signal to the whole world that Italy will no longer tolerate looting and theft of our art," said Rome's archeology superintendent, Angelo Bottini.

Police said the Austrian, who was affectionately called Mozart by his Italian associates, had not been arrested because of his age.

Italian officials did not give his real name, but Austrian media quoted a man they named as Rupert Aichmeir as denying any wrongdoing.

"What sort of cultural assets? They are only shards," Aichmeir was quoted as saying on the website of Austrian state broadcaster ORF.

"They are talking about 1,000 pieces. That's what I've bought at fairs over 40 years.... If I had stolen the exhibits, I wouldn't have been so stupid as to show them publicly and give lectures -- even with video clips -- on my work in Italy."

Italian police said they uncovered gold, silver, ceramics, marbles, bronzes and large Etruscan vases in their swoop on "Mozart's" home near the town of Linz.

A video of the raid showed police digging up a vegetable patch to find dozens of vases wrapped in black bin bags.

Italian authorities think the country loses thousands of dollars worth of art treasures every year through looting, and they are looking to crack down on the illicit trade. Investigators believe the looting stretches to the highest levels of the art world.

In July, the former curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Marion True, went on trial in Rome accused of receiving stolen artifacts. True has denied the accusations.

True's trial, the opening session of which she did not attend, is being closely watched by the international art community. It is due to continue in November.

Police said they tracked "Mozart" after a tipoff from Rome archeologists. They believe he carried off thousands of Italian artifacts over many years by using his tour guide credentials to gain access to protected sites.

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