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Italy's Special Carabinieri Unit Fights Art Looting
The Wall Street Journal - Opinion Journal 10/04/2006

ROME--Each morning a report arrives on the desk of Col. Giovanni Pastore, second in command of a military police unit charged with protecting Italy's cultural patrimony. The few pages list everything from antique watches to Renaissance paintings that were either ripped off or recovered the day before.

Robbers entered a church in Ascoli Piceno and left with two ancient wood pews, the better for making fake antique furniture. A burglar at a church farther north in Novara had just enough time to break the wooden arm off of a baby Jesus, as it lay cradled in the arms of the Virgin Mary, before making an escape. Meanwhile, at a family villa elsewhere in Italy, thieves stole off into the night with a cache of marble statues. On a bright note, more than two dozen sculptures, antiques and paintings, including a 16th-century triptych of the Holy Family, were recovered just one month after their theft from a villa outside Milan.

Not included in the report were the holes likely dug the night before by tombaroli, the grave-robbers notorious for busting open Etruscan tombs, nor the countless unreported incidents that daily take place in a country richer in antiquities than in the resources or manpower to stop their theft or trafficking.

While Italians may be rejoicing over the Metropolitan Museum of Art's recent decision to return treasures allegedly stolen long ago, the looting back home continues. "It's impossible to stop," says Col. Pastore, an ex-cavalry officer with a penchant for art. "Museums have alarms, but it's impossible to put carabinieri at every archaeological site."

A look at Italy's insurmountable looting problem helps explain why the country is waging an antiquities war on overseas museums. That's a battle the Italians can win.

Leading the antilooting and recovery efforts are the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Patrimony. It is perhaps the largest armed force of its kind anywhere and many argue the world's most effective. At work are 300 of the country's 120,000 carabinieri, in 11 offices from Venice to Palermo. It is internationally so well-regarded that its members have served as experts and trainers in Iraq, Kosovo, Cuba and Peru. Representatives from countries such as Greece and Hungary have traveled to Italy to learn how these officers work.

In an average week, carabinieri fly helicopters over archaeological sites taking aerial photographs to reveal illegal diggings. They go on offshore dives to prevent unauthorized underwater excavations. They also lecture at schools, universities and conferences to convince Italians that looting and trafficking in their own cultural heritage isn't just against the law, but against their own interests. Still other officers in their stylish black-and-red uniforms show up unannounced at antique shops, auction houses and outdoor markets, to videotape items for sale to match against the more than 2.5 million missing objects cataloged in the art squad's vast database.

There are more carabinieri still devoted to poring through another kind of database that lists sales at auctions by organizations such as Sotheby's and Christie's, and also to surfing the Internet to find hot antiquities for sale. This doesn't include the satellites, wire-tapping and other technological tools increasingly used to track illicit activity.

More reinforcement comes from ordinary carabinieri, the international police force, Interpol, as well as England's Scotland Yard, the Italian culture ministry, archaeologists, and a network of spies and paid informants. There are anonymous helpers too. Sometimes it's a tombaroli with a grudge against a competitor who tips them off. Other times word arrives out of the blue--like the email received recently with a link to an auction on eBay, listing for sale an Etruscan urn missing since the summer of 2004.

Yet these numerous and varied efforts aren't enough. Between 1970 and 2005, according to the organization's own figures, 845,838 objects were reported stolen, while less than a third of that number were recovered and only 4,159 arrests were made. (In defense, Col. Pastore says that the number of robberies at private properties has decreased to 619 in 2005 from 673 in 2003, and these account for more than half of all thefts in Italy.)

Observers say this unit does the best it can despite the odds. First there's the problem of quantity. Italy has some 6,000 registered archaeological sites, 100,000 or so churches, more than 45,000 castles and gardens, and roughly 35,000 historic residences--not to mention thousands of miles of coastline, beneath which lie yet more buried treasure. All are potential targets.

Protecting riches is doubly challenging for the same reason that Italy is such a special country to visit: Many valuables aren't cordoned off behind ropes or protected by glass walls, much less watched around the clock by guards or cameras. "Italy is not a country of museums," says Rosanna Binacchi, a culture ministry employee and Italy's point person on a Memorandum of Understanding With the U.S. related to import restrictions on cultural property. "It's a museum in itself, a large open-air museum."

Then there are funding issues. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government has dramatically cut finances for cultural affairs--by 20% over just the past two years, says Salvatore Settis, an art historian and director of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. In particular, he says, cuts have hit protection efforts in the larger sense by reducing funds for archives, libraries and museums. Some museums are opening fewer hours, he says, and others aren't filling jobs left vacant by retiring staffers. "Evidently, these things are low on the list of [this government's] priorities and this makes me worry." (A culture ministry official wouldn't comment, except to say that no matter how much money Italy has for art protection, preservation and antilooting, it's never enough.)

Funding cuts have interrupted work on a project to catalog all export-license applications as part of a larger internal system to speed up work flow between the nearly two dozen export offices and central headquarters. The project, which started in the early 1990s and is still not up and running, would mean that all art leaving the country, at least through these channels, could be matched against the carabinieri's database of stolen items and also against a larger database of historical art that's run by the culture ministry. The work has dragged on for so many years that the legal code, which protects cultural patrimony, has changed and numerous documents in the system had to be amended. Those working on the project expect it to be operating by year's end. "We have another meeting next Friday," says Clara Baracchini, a member of the Pisa branch of the culture ministry, who has participated since the beginning. "I hope it's the last one."

Not surprisingly, Italy's bureaucracies are like those everywhere, hampered by a lack of coordination--including between the carabinieri and culture ministry departments, as well as between departments within the ministry. "Everyone agrees that cultural heritage is important," says Ms. Binacchi, "but when it comes to investing, working together and creating synergies, we take a step backwards."

Outsiders offering to help protect Italy's antiquities aren't always welcome either. Gianfranco Gazzetti is the director of a volunteer group in Rome of amateur and professional archaeologists with 1,000 members and 70 more affiliate groups around the country. He says that on behalf of his organization, he has on many occasions offered to send volunteers to help out at excavation sites, but has been rejected in all but a handful of cases. "It's the mentality of the elite," he says. "They think only professionals can help. Yet we're in an emergency situation and they should use external help."

No amount of coordination, money or policing, however, can alter a perhaps more subtle problem in Italy: a particular Italian bent of mind. In Italy, family comes first, then cities, then regions, and then the state. While authorities may say it's a patriotic duty to hand over antiquities dug up in one's own backyard, and it's a crime not to, only 30% to 40% of the population ever comes forward even though there's a monetary incentive to do so, says Prof. Settis. Nor are neighbors in the know likely to alert the carabinieri, even though it's also a crime not to. Partly it's out of fear of red tape that results from having a home on what might then be deemed an archaeological site. Dr. Gazzetti says it also has to do with the way Italians think. It's different in other countries, he says. "The Turks and the Greeks are more tied to their cultural heritage. They have a greater sense of loyalty to their state."

True or not, with so many perceived enemies, it's been viewed as more productive to fight demand from overseas, especially in America, where hundreds of museum pieces remain under dispute. "That's our preventive work," says Lt. Col. Ferdinando Musella, the chain-smoking head of operations in the unit, who used to fight Mafia and drug criminals. "The minute in which there is no demand, the rest will stop. These tombaroli will return to their other work. If one's not a tombarolo, he'll be a shepherd or a farmer."

Prof. Settis, a former director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, disagrees. "The market cannot be removed," he says. "If U.S. collectors stop, what about the Japanese, or Koreans, or Chinese tomorrow? What you can do is continue to spread awareness of the problem."

Locked on the ground floor at the art squad's operational headquarters in Rome is loot collected by the squad. Stacked against the walls are Picassos, Dalis, Miros and a delicate Degas ballerina, all fakes. The seller applied for and got an export license for his "masterpieces" but they were stopped at the border--about a dozen of the more than 228,000 counterfeit works seized by this squad since 1970.

Not far from the fakes in cardboard boxes on the floor sit far more valuable treasures: a bronze Etruscan candelabrum, an inscribed gravestone said to be from a Greek colony in Sicily, and a large, delicate krater of extraordinary beauty, painted more than 2,300 years ago by the Greek painter Asteas--and all returned to Italy by the Getty Museum last November.



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