Art crime

Revealed: the Mafia’s interest in archaeology

Esteemed artworld professionals have been arrested as part of a wide-reaching investigation into antiquities smuggling with links to an ongoing New York court case.


Evidence linking the world’s most infamous criminal organisation with the multi-million dollar illegal trade in antiquities is beginning to emerge.

An ongoing investigation spearheaded by the Prosecution Service in Catania in Eastern Sicily is uncovering details of an international network of traffickers that appears to be closely associated with the Mafia. They are responsible for smuggling archaeological material looted from tombs in Sicily and Southern Italy to Switzerland, Great Britain, and the United States.

This inquiry led to the arrest in December of six men who are now awaiting trial on charges of conspiracy and receiving stolen goods. One of them, Vincenzo Cammarata, a Sicilian art collector identified as one of the masterminds of the operation, has also been charged with associazione mafiosa—conspiring with the Mafia. A huge cache of antiquities stashed in his Sicilian home is currently being catalogued by Ministry of Culture officials.

Mr Cammarata is also implicated in a case of international significance, a legal wrangle between Italy and New York collector Michael Steinhardt over a fourth-century BC solid gold platter which was discovered in Sicily and eventually purchased by Mr Steinhardt in New York.

The other arrests include two lecturers from the University of Catania, Giacomo Manganaro, from the department of ancient history, and Salvo di Bella, a lecturer in political geography. Ancient coins and other antiquities discovered in their homes have been confiscated and are being investigated.

Gianfranco Casolari, a coin dealer based in Rimini, was also detained. Mr Casolari is the managing director of Aes Rude, an auction house in the Republic of San Marino.

These arrests follow the capture last March of several tombaroli, or tomb-robbers, as part of an anti-Mafia operation. As these men were interrogated, investigators began to form a picture of a highly organised network dealing in smuggled antiquities. Evidence also emerged that many tomb robbers are either directly employed by the Mafia or work for people who are, in turn, associated with the organisation.

According to the confessions of Maurizio Sinistra, one of the tombaroli, on more than one occasion, the art collector “Vincenzo Cammarata was present at meetings of Mafiosi where the sale of looted material was negotiated.”

Stolen antiquities were brought to Mr Cammarata who was responsible for organising their sale on the black market or “laundering” them so that they could be sold on the international art market with respectable provenances.

When he was arrested, policemen discovered thousands of prehistoric, Hellenistic, Byzantine, and Roman antiquities in his spacious villa at Enna. They included vases, amphorae, coins, and crowns stacked on shelves, hidden in wardrobes and in drawers, and heaped in every available corner, even in the bathroom. Some of the more valuable works were hidden underneath the floor in one of the corridors.

Maria Grazia Branciforti, from the Ministry of Culture’s regional office in Catania has been chosen by magistrates to catalogue the cache. She said, “There are more exhibits in that house than in some museums.”

Mr Cammarata, who is a respected connoisseur (last year he was asked by Catania City Council to curate an exhibition of classical jewellery for the city’s archaeological museum), sometimes collaborated with other experts such as Dr Manganaro at the University of Catania.

Once they had been examined, antiquities were sent to Mr Casolari in Rimini who, in turn, appears to have provided false provenance records. Sometimes Mr Casolari sold stolen antiquities through his auction house in San Marino. San Marino is an independent Republic in Italy and is therefore not subject to stringent Italian legislation relating to the export of the cultural heritage.

It seems that antiquities were then exported either to Switzerland or London and from there they sometimes continued to the US or Japan. According to a spokesperson for the Ministry of Culture, some works of art could have been sold to Western museums with false provenance documents.

The involvement of the Mafia comes as no surprise to General Roberto Conforti, the commander of the heritage protection squad of the carabinieri (Italy’s military police). He told The Art Newspaper, “The mafia is interested in profit. The smuggling of antiquities is profitable. We have always assumed an involvement.”

“In 1969 Caravaggio’s “Nativity” was stolen from the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo for the Mafia. This alerted us to their interest in the value of works of art. The importance of this investigation is that specific information is emerging about every stage of the process, from excavation to the creation of false provenance details, and precise smuggling routes out of Sicily through Switzerland and the UK to America”.

Meanwhile, in New York, the case of Italy vs. Michael Steinhardt remains on appeal. In 1997, the US Attorney in New York obtained confiscation of a fourth-century BC antique gold platter (phiale mesomphalos) of Sicilian origin valued at over $1 million (The Art Newspaper, No 77, January 1998, p.5).

The US Attorney’s efforts resulted from a 1995 request by the Italian government, based on a treaty of cooperation between Italy and the US, seeking assistance in locating and returning the phiale.

According to papers presented in court, the phiale had been unearthed during excavations to install electricity poles in a State-protected archaeological site near Caltavutaro, Palermo. It had then come into the possession of a private Sicilian dealer, Vincenzo Pappalardo, and was authenticated in 1980 by Dr Manganaro on the basis of the inscription along its edge, written in a Greek Doric dialect spoken in the ancient Greek-Sicilian colonies.

Mr Pappalardo traded the phiale to Vincenzo Cammarata for works of art worth approximately $20,000. In 1991, Mr Cammarata traded the phiale to William Veres, a Dutch art dealer with a company called Stedron, for objects worth $90,000, and in November that year, Mr Veres sold the phiale to New York collector Michael Steinhardt for L1.3 billion (over $1 million) with New York dealer Robert Haber acting as intermediary. Mr Haber took possession of it in Lugano, just over the Swiss border and returned with it to New York via Zurich. On entry into the US, the phiale was not impounded, the entry documents listing the country of origin as Switzerland.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 89 February 1999