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Saturday, December 16, 2006

Italian police uncover art theft ring

Italian police uncover art theft ring

By MARTA FALCONI
ASSOCIATED PRESS WRITER

ROME -- Italian police said Thursday they have uncovered an international art trafficking ring based in Rome and have recovered about 100 artifacts.

Rome Carabinieri police said 35 people, including an architect and an antique dealer, are being investigated in connection with charges ranging from illegal possession to trafficking of archaeological artifacts. They were not arrested.

The two-year investigation focused on cities including Rome, Naples and Palermo.

Police said all the artifacts were stolen over the past 20 years, and that at least some had been destined to a foreign market.

One item, a 17th-century still life by Italian painter Pietro Paolo Bonzi - stolen from a private collection - had been smuggled to France, and investigators were looking into a possible link to Florida, said Carabinieri Maj. Salvatore Altavilla. He declined to provide more details, as the investigation is still under way

"Again, Rome becomes the crossroads of art thefts," Carabinieri official Alessandro Casarsa told a news conference. "Art thefts are like double thefts: You steal the artifact from its owner but also prevent other people from enjoying it."

Also recovered was a 660-pound marble altar front with mosaics dating from the 12th century, which had been stolen near Naples in November 2003; a decorated silver head of Saint Gregory; a second-century Roman child's sarcophagus and religious paintings.

Police started the investigation in 2004 after recovering a marble piece on sale in an antiquities shop in downtown Rome.

Italy is aggressively combatting the pillage of its archaeological and artistic treasures. Its campaign also includes seeking the return of several antiquities it claims were obtained by museums illegally.

Earlier this week, an ancient statue and a marble head that were stolen in Rome in the 1980s were returned to Italy after authorities traced them to New York and Barcelona, Spain.

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