Italy's Artifacts Police Wage Global War, Recover 137,000 Objects

ITALY
  Italian masterpieces stolen from an ancient religious complex in Rome in 2004 were recovered by the Carabinieri, Italy’s elite culture police. Investigators found the works hidden and wrapped in newspaper in the trailer of a suspected art smuggler. Photograph by Andrew Medichini, AP

By Frank Viviano, National Geographic

PUBLISHED June 19, 2015

“Culture commandos” combine the roles of archaeologists, paleontologists, art historians, and combat-trained shock troops.

MORGANTINA, Sicily—Three thousand years ago, this broad ridge 50 miles west of Mount Etna was the perch of a magnificent city. Its monumental architecture and refined art, its irrigation systems and agricultural wealth, made it a leading Mediterranean power half a millennium before the rise of Imperial Rome.

Today, most of its wonders lie under acres of wild fennel and oleander. In several hours amid the ruins, this reporter encountered only five tourists, two unpaid volunteers, and not a single guard or maintenance worker. Ancient Morgantina is among archaeology’s most neglected secrets.

But it is no secret to tomb robbers, who have made it one of the most looted historic sites on the planet, or to the extraordinary army that battles them around the globe.

That army is Italy's Comando per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale (“High Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage”), popularly known as the “TPC,” a wing of the Italian army’s Carabinieri police detachment.

No country on earth boasts a more elite counter-force aimed at the illegal trade in artifacts. And nowhere is that illicit trade more sophisticated than in Italy.

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[Image caption: Italian masterpieces stolen from an ancient religious complex in Rome in 2004 were recovered by the Carabinieri, Italy’s elite culture police. Investigators found the works hidden and wrapped in newspaper in the trailer of a suspected art smuggler.
Photograph by Andrew Medichini, AP]