"My life as a tombarolo." The Art Newspaper goes underground in the world of illicit archaeology

Cristina Ruiz spent a day with the man who controls much of the illicit excavation on the site of ancient Veii, one of the largest Etruscan cities.



It is easy to like the man we shall call Antonio Induno. He is a softly spoken man in his mid-forties who smiles often. His manner is friendly and direct and he speaks candidly and enthusiastically about his work. Mr Induno is a tomb-robber.

For the last 30 years he has plundered the tombs of the ancient Etruscan city of Veii. By his estimate, he has smashed his way into several hundred ancient burial chambers to recover vases, statuettes, mirrors, ornaments, jewellery, and other objects in gold, bronze, and terracotta. Mr Induno has fed these items to middlemen who, in turn, have sold them to buyers in the US and Europe.

Over the years he has risen through the ranks of the tombaroli. As a boy, he learnt the trade from his father before working for years as a henchman for another tomb-robber. “I got frustrated with only getting 20% of the profits,” says Mr Induno. He now has his own team of men and reliable sources say that he controls much of the illicit excavation at Veii, a position Mr Induno is willing to comment on only by saying: “No one can loot here without my knowing about it.”

Although Mr Induno has held the occasional odd job, it is by fuelling the multi-million dollar trade in stolen artefacts that he has made his living.

A great Etruscan power

Last month Mr Induno took me to the countryside some 30 kilometres northwest of Rome where Veii once stood.

This powerful Etruscan city rose on a broad plateau overlooking the surrounding hills. Formed by the fusion of small communities between the ninth and tenth centuries BC, the city expanded rapidly. At the height of its power Veii’s sphere of influence extended to the lake of Bracciano some 25 kilometres further north, down to the right bank of the Tiber in the south incorporating the Janiculum hill and the areas today known as Trastevere, Monte Mario and the Vatican. In the southwest, Veii controlled the strategically crucial mouth of the Tiber with its rich salt deposits, and the coastline around it.

The city’s power soon made it an enemy of an expanding Rome. Ancient sources describe ongoing confrontations between the two cities until 396 BC when Veii fell to the Roman general Furio Camillo following a ten-year siege.

In its heyday, Veii was as large as Athens and by some estimates was home to 100,000 inhabitants. “That’s a lot of dead people,” says Mr Induno.

An eyewitness account

Today, hundreds of unexcavated Veiian tombs lie buried in the green rolling hills north of Rome. Archaeologists have identified several necropoleis outside the ancient city limits and have excavated several hundred (see below). But most State-funded archaeology has focused on one of the ceremonial centres of the city where a spectacular temple known as the Sanctuary of Apollo has been discovered.

Mr Induno took me on a tour of the vast, open fields where he plunders. As we walked, he pointed out dozens of unexcavated tombs. To the trained eye they are identifiable by changes in the colour of the grass and variations in the patterns of vegetation. The grass growing above a hollow space dries more quickly or grows more sparsely than that which grows above dense earth, because the ground underneath it contains less moisture. According to Mr Induno other markers include wild fig trees which often grow directly above tombs. Following the tracks of foxes and moles can also lead tomb-robbers to buried treasure because the animals often make their burrows in underground burial chambers.

Mr Induno led me to a large tumulus, a mound of earth topped by trees which conceals a cluster of Veiian tombs which may all have belonged to the same family. Mr Induno has broken into two of these. He showed me the empty chambers where he had discovered funerary objects that now adorn the mantlepieces of collectors. He described the hoards from these tombs as “very rich,” and explained that they contained “many buccheri [jugs]”. Mr Induno estimates that another 13 tombs lie buried in this mound, but he doubts whether he will be back to break into them. He blames “unfriendly farmers” living nearby for being “unhelpful” and says they are likely to call the police.

Sometimes farmers living near archaeological sites are given a cut of the profits, but some living near the Veiian necropoleis refuse to cooperate with tomb-robbers because they fear that illicit activity could lead to the State cordoning off the land which would make it impossible for them to cultivate it.

All in a night’s work

“On average, I break into a tomb every ten days,” explains Mr Induno. “First, I identify an unexcavated site. I go for a walk, as we’re doing now, and I choose a spot. Then I do a survey of the tomb by piercing the earth with spilloni (long metal poles) and working out where the entrance is, how large the tomb is, how deeply it lies buried. I mark the spot with a pile of stones, a plastic bag, anything will do, and I come back with my men at night.”

Most Veiian tombs are composed of a dromos, a single corridor, leading down into a single burial chamber. Mr Induno always breaks in from the entrance corridor and tunnels down into the tomb. “It makes no sense to come in from the top,” he says. “It is faster, but you break too many objects and what you break, you cannot sell. If you know how to break in properly, you can get a lot of stuff out of a tomb. I have years of experience; I know how to handle the works, how to retrieve them without damage, but someone less experienced could break into the same tomb and come away with only half the hoard.” According to Mr Induno, on average, a virgin tomb will yield some 30-40 vases as well as an assortment of other artefacts, but he estimates that half of the tombs he breaks into have already been looted, either in antiquity or more recently.

Breaking into a tomb usually takes two nights. On the first, enough earth is cleared away to allow ventilation of the interior chamber. The tomb is left for 24 hours so that the burial goods inside, which may have lain buried for as long as 2,600 years, can oxidise and harden. “When I first started out in this business, many of the objects I handled crumbled to pieces. They were too fragile. Now, I have a more scientific approach,” says Mr Induno.

On the second night, the tombaroli return to the site. They use no flashlights or torches of any kind and they prefer to work when the moon is low. “Your eyes get used to the dark,” says Mr Induno. Although Mr Induno smokes, when he is working he does so by lighting the cigarette under his coat and then smoking it backwards, placing the lit end inside his mouth.

The tombaroli have six to eight hours of darkness to get the job done. Once a tomb has been looted, they usually do not come back, unless the site is well hidden and no farmers live nearby. “We work quickly, leaving many things behind. Sometimes I come back and recover more stuff, most times I don’t, because it is too risky,” says Mr Induno.

Breaking into a tomb is hard manual labour. Three men dig with shovels as one stands guard above. The lookout scans the fields with infra-red binoculars that give night-time vision. “The lookout guy is crucial,” says Mr Induno. “We give him lots of hot coffee and whisky to keep him awake.” Only twice in Mr Induno’s long career has his lookout spotted approaching policemen. “One time, they were wearing white vests,” he says. “We saw them from miles away.” Another time they came much closer, but Mr Induno and his men managed to escape through the fields. “They won’t chase you that far,” says Mr Induno, “and they never shoot.”

Once the artefacts have been removed from the burial chamber, Mr Induno and his crew wrap them carefully in newspapers, place them in plastic bags and hide them in clumps of trees nearby. “The first rule of tomb-robbing is never take anything home and never put anything in your car. If the police search your house and find you in possession of anything, you’re in trouble.”

The illicit network

When Mr Induno has something to sell, he calls a ricettatore (receiver or middleman) whom he describes as “someone with the contacts necessary to move the stolen artefacts to buyers in the US, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and England.” The material is usually sold to a middleman within 24 hours of its removal from the tomb.

Mr Induno is paid according to pre-established rates (see box), so it makes little difference which ricettatore he works with. “This is not a free market,” says Mr Induno, “This is price-fixing. I can bargain a little with these people, but in the end, I always have to take their offer, otherwise I’m stuck with the stuff and no one else will buy it. If I annoy these guys they could give the police an anonymous tip-off about me. They keep the price low, so the supply is steady. If I got paid more, I would definitely work less.” On average each tomb has netted Mr Induno and his men from $3,300 to $5,700, of which Mr Induno takes 60-70% and the rest is split between the members of his team.

Objects in bronze are valued more than those in gold because gold is impossible to date and it is difficult to establish authenticity. Mr Induno says he received the most money for a bronze statuette of Hercules for which he was paid roughly $6,000, but he describes a bronze mirror in the shape of a crocodile as his favourite discovery. “It was really large and finely worked and the crocodile’s mouth was holding the mirror,” he says. What he would most like to find, however, is a marble statue. “If I found a statue I might get paid as much as $200,000, but you only find those in villas and villas are much harder to plunder than tombs.”

Despite the middleman cartel, Mr Induno has devised his own ways of squeezing money out of his buyers. “If I find an exceptional object, like a vase decorated with the head of a god, then I might break off a piece of the head. Then I sell the object to a middleman for say, $1,000. Two weeks later I call him back and tell him I returned to the tomb and found another fragment. Then he’ll pay me another $1,000 to have the piece.”

Mr Induno would not say much about these middlemen. He describes them as “well-educated” and “part of the establishment”. “The guy I work with the most is a professional, but technically he’s unemployed. He makes a very good living from selling the material he buys from me and from other tombaroli. I estimate that this guy sells the stuff for 10 times what he paid me. Let me put it this way: he drives a Mercedes, I drive a Fiat Panda.”

When he can, Mr Induno prefers to bypass the middleman altogether and sell directly to collectors. “I have a lot of Italian clients whom I deal with directly. One guy I know buys statuettes in bronze. I know what he wants, so if I find anything suitable, I’ll give him a call.”

But usually Mr Induno cannot do without the ricettatori. They have the international contacts to sell the material and the resources to transport it safely from the open fields to the shipping bay. “He takes care of everything. Once I call him, my problems are over,” says Mr Induno. “If I find something really large that I cannot carry or hide, he’ll take over immediately, arrange transportation, take care of the details. I have a relationship with these people. These guys trust me. If I need money, I can get a loan from them no questions asked,” says Mr Induno.

According to Mr Induno, the material is sometimes sold locally, “My ricettatore has a lot of dealers in Rome buying from him,” but mostly it is shipped abroad in containers. Typically, stolen works of art are placed in containers carrying car parts, food, or marble. “Sometimes slabs of marble are hollowed out, stolen works are placed inside, and then the slabs are sealed with stucco. You would never know the difference,” he says.

Mr Induno’s description of this criminal network tallies with The Art Newspaper’s own recent investigations. From what Mr Induno says, it follows that many accomplices must be in the business of packing and unpacking shipping containers.

Sometimes Mr Induno works as a middleman himself. “Some of the younger tomb-robbers will occasionally come to me wanting my help to sell some material. I will put them in touch with buyers and then I’ll take 10% commission from each. They know they can trust me, that the people I introduce them to will not bring the police knocking on their doors.”

Other times, if his work schedule is too hectic, he will “sell” unopened tombs to other tomb-robbers. “Less experienced tombaroli are not as good at finding tombs. So I will point them in the right direction for a flat fee or a cut of the profits.”

Mr Induno also works on commission. “Sometimes I’ll get a call from someone who may have moved into a new home, a young couple say, wanting something to decorate their living room. So I might go to a [Roman] villa that I know and saw off the mosaics from the floor. They give me the sizes and I just take my tape measure along.”

Where are the police?

According to Mr Induno, the carabinieri (the military police responsible for the protection of the cultural heritage) only come after tombaroli if they have received a tip-off.

“We’re not like the Mafia; there is no violence, but there is a code of honour,” says Mr Induno. “It is a matter of loyalty. If I get messed around, then I’ll make an anonymous call to the carabinieri.” Because of their limited resources and the scale of the problem, the carabinieri often become pawns in the tombaroli’s power struggles. When the carabinieri confiscate a hoard of artefacts or arrest tomb-robbers, they are probably consolidating somebody else’s position and influence.

Mr Induno himself has been questioned by the carabinieri on more than one occasion, but he has never been arrested or charged with a crime. He describes them as “really friendly”. “They are just doing their job, as I am doing mine. They have families to feed; I respect that. When they question me, they always offer me coffee and cigarettes because they know that I’m not a dangerous criminal, that I’m not the guy making money. They know that I’ve never hurt anyone.”

A lifetime’s work

Mr Induno claims to regret the damage he has done to the ancient city of Veii. “It makes me sad that our heritage, our Italian history is disappearing like this. I’d like to have an honest job, to spend my nights in bed with my wife,” says Mr Induno, “but there’s no alternative for me or for my men. We work to put food on the table for our families. I know I’m stealing from the State, but I don’t know anyone who does this job who is rich. We are all unemployed, we do what we have to do.”

“The government won’t help us. Cigarette smugglers are offered work if they give up smuggling [a reference to a 1992 proposal to grant amnesty and guaranteed work to all those involved in selling contraband cigarettes]. But for tomb-robbers there’s nothing on offer, no incentive for us to stop looting.”

“I have a lot of experience and know Veii better than any archaeologist. I could work for the Sovrintendenza, I could show them where all the necropoleis are. I love history, If I had studied, I’d be a great archaeologist.”

When asked if he intends to hand the family business over to his son, he replies wistfully: “I’ve taken my son out with me three or four times, but he’s not really interested in tomb-robbing. There’s no passion.”

Despite his regrets, Mr Induno loves his job. He tells me that if he has been away from the fields for too long, he gets restless: “I miss the thrill of breaking into tombs. I miss the fear, the adrenaline rush, the smell of a freshly opened burial chamber. Finding a cache is like being a fisherman, reeling in a huge salmon,” says Mr Induno.

The way forward

Tomb-robbing is a crime, but in Italy it is a thriving business. Mr Induno and hundreds like him who are active on sites throughout central and southern Italy operate with virtually no interference.

In archaeological circles the attitude is defeatist. One hears talk of damage limitation and references to tomb-robbing as an inevitability.

Government initiatives to protect sites like Veii have focussed only on the top end of the market. In January the US agreed to impose restrictions on the import of archaeological material from Italy following a 1999 request made under the 1970 Unesco Convention (The Art Newspaper, No.111, February 2001, pp.1,5). The bilateral agreement gives US Customs officials the power to confiscate material caught at US borders without an Italian export licence or works discovered on the market that importers cannot prove entered the US legitimately.

This legislation will be a useful tool in facilitating the return to Italy of stolen objects spotted in the US. But it will not eliminate the demand for stolen artefacts. The objects found and sold by Mr Induno, which are seen by only two or three people before they are sold directly to collectors through a well-established underground network, will remain impossible to track. Only a tiny percentage of all containers coming into the US every year are opened by US Customs agents whose top priority will always be the seizure of narcotics, not stolen art.

Under the terms of the bilateral agreement Italy has undertaken to increase its protection of archaeological sites at risk. Given the vast number of unexcavated sites and the amount of territory they cover, it would be impossible to monitor them adequately short of calling in NATO troops.

There could be another solution, however. Teams of archaeologists from cash-rich foreign universities should be encouraged to excavate in Italy with the promise of the long-term loan of the material they find. What matters most is saving the archaeological information that burial hoards contain, not the recovery of the artefacts in themselves. In any case, there is not much room left in Ministry of Culture warehouses and only exceptional works will make it into the country’s already well stocked museums. Once discoveries have been catalogued and studied, there is no reason why they should not go abroad. Increased archaeological activity will bring more people to excavation sites which will make it much more difficult for the tombaroli to operate. But current Italian legislation prevents cultural goods (which includes archaeological and post-archaeological material) from leaving the country for more than six months (Law 1089 (1939) and Law 328 (1950)).

In 1992 Senator Luigi Covatta, then Undersecretary of State for the Ministry of Culture, proposed a bill which, had it passed, would have allowed the loan of works on a “long term basis” to “museums, universities and research and study bodies”. The bill did not define “long term” but specified that archaeological objects excavated by authorised foreign teams might be exported by them for up to 10 years. The proposal was voted down amid political posturing and hysterical headlines warning that politicians were considering “selling off” the nation’s cultural treasures.

Mr Induno told me that he had recently discovered a necropolis with hundreds of unexcavated tombs that he says is unknown to archaeologists. So far, he has only broken into one. Action is urgently needed. Until it is taken, it will be business as usual for Mr Induno and his tombaroli.

What the archaeologists have done

Several of the necropoleis of the ancient Etruscan city of Veii have been identified and partly excavated by archaeologists. They have proven to be immensely rich in tombs. For example, excavations conducted between 1913 and 1915 brought to light 799 tombs in the single necropolis of Grotta Gramiccia. It is, however, impossible to estimate how many tombs have been excavated, how many have been looted, and how many still lie buried, because the results of much of the official excavation remain unpublished. In the early Seventies, the late Etruscan scholar, Massimo Pallottino described, “a definitive publication of the excavations of the Veiian necropoleis,” as one of the “most urgent necessities of Italian archaeology.” Such a publication has not yet seen the light of day. Professor Pallottino assigned the charting of the necropoleis of Veii to various of his students as the subject for their dissertations. These dissertations have also yet to be published.

Etruscan masterpiece

In the sixth century BC, Veii was the greatest centre for the fabrication of terracotta sculptures in Etruria. Scholars believe the city’s artists were called to Rome to mould the terracotta statues decorating the temple of Capitoline Jupiter, inaugurated in 509 BC. This late sixth century BC terracotta statue of Apollo was discovered in the ceremonial centre of Veii where it once adorned the Portonaccio Temple, also known as the Sanctuary of Apollo. The statue stood facing one of Hercules with a deer at his feet, a depiction of the Greek god’s capture of the Ceryneian hind, sacred to Apollo’s sister, Artemis. It is now in the Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia in Rome

See the mark-ups

This Etruscan bronze lion, circa late 6th century BC, (length 13.2 cm) sold for $52,500 (hammer price) at Sotheby’s New York, 10 December 1999 (lot 257; est. $40,000-60,000). Mr Induno says he is paid L500,000 ($237) per cm for bronze lions in good condition. For a similar object, he would, therefore, have been paid $3,128

This Etruscan bronze mirror, circa 4th century BC, (length 28.6cm) sold for $12,000 (hammer price) at Christie’s New York, 9 December 1999 (lot 429; est. $15,000-20,000). Mr Induno says he is paid L600,000 ($284) per cm for bronze mirrors in good condition. For a similar object, he would, therefore, have been paid $8,122

This Etruscan bucchero aryballos (jug), circa late 7th century BC sold for $9,500 (hammer price) at Christie’s New York, 9 December 1999 (lot 432; est. $4,000-6,000). Mr Induno says he is paid the following prices: for a bucchero in poor condition L20,000-30,000 ($10-14); for a bucchero in good condition L100,000-200,000 ($47-95); for a bucchero in perfect condition L250,000-300,000 ($119-142) up to L500,000 ($237) if there is relief decoration

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘"My life as a tombarolo"