On November 14, 2015, near the village of Chrysovitsi in Arcadia, Greece, a group of German poachers discovered an ancient silver coin weighing 12 grams.
They named it “Olympia”.
On its front the coin depicted an eagle with open wings holding a hare with its claws, and on the back it showed the winged Goddess Niki (Victory), just like the Niki of Samothraki statue which is now located at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The poachers stole the coin and sold it for 8,000 euros to an intermediary seller and a popular – among his peers – illicit dealer of antiquity, known by the nickname 'The Grandfather'.
The poachers thought that they had made a good deal.
The value of the coin however, was much greater than they had estimated.
On March 7, 2016, that same coin appeared in an auction house catalogue in Munich, Germany, for a starting price of 12,000 euros.
It was eventually sold for 34,000 euros to an anonymous buyer.
The German poachers felt the original buyer, 'The Grandfather', had deceived them, since he bought the coin for a much lower price than it was actually worth.
They decided to return to Greece to search for more ancient coins to sell at auction. A large group of illicit dealers from various countries was assembled to discover ancient artifacts and smuggle them to auctions in Germany, Austria, Great Britain and Bulgaria.
The Greek police recorded in detail the journey of the Olympia coin, as well as the stories of many other ancient Greek coins and artifacts, from discovery to sale in auction houses abroad.
In the Summer of 2015, the Greek authorities started monitoring phone calls between suspects of antiquities trades and thefts, and during some of these recorded conversations the sounds of metal detectors searching for coins in Greece and noises made by shovels digging could even be clearly heard.
A year later, the same police investigation led to dozens of arrests.
Searches of the homes of the suspect poachers, their warehouses and their cars, resulted in the confiscation of 2,024 coins and 126 antiquities and part of the loot that had ended up abroad was repatriated.
All of the stolen ancient items were examined by a team of archaeologists and museum curators, who concluded that the value of the artifacts was “priceless and impossible to estimate, but would guarantee millions in earnings for the poachers”.
A similar story unfolded in May 2016, when a silver half drachma coin depicting the Olympian Goddess Demeter, was auctioned in Zurich, Switzerland for 15,000 Swiss francs.
The coin had been discovered in an illegal excavation in Karpenisi in Greece, just three months earlier and sold to Swiss smugglers.
Throughout phone conversations recorded by the Greek police, the defendants explained how the money from this sale was to be distributed, and revealed that the Swiss auction house itself had created fake certificates of origin showing the coin as a legally distributed currency from a legal European collection.
The auction house reportedly received over 20% in commission for the sale of this particular coin.
On October 21st of this year, the first set of a series of trials against the antiquity dealers took place at the Three-Member Criminal Court of Appeal of Patras in Greece, where 47 defendants appeared.
The accusations against them and their illegal actions were presented before the court, along with a detailed description of the theft and distribution chain of the ancient items to large and well-known auction houses abroad.
The indictment case file – reportedly 2,546 pages long – suggested that some of these auction houses even attempted to pay off Greek smugglers to conduct illegal excavations and make illegal purchases, create fake certificates of origin, and allow fictitious strikes at auctions to manipulate the final price of each item.
After several years of investigation and observation, the Greek police managed to uncover a whole network of illegal dealers of ancient artefacts and bring to light a 'laundering' of antiquities.
In order to unravel the centre of action of the circuit, Greek authorities submitted requests for legal assistance from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Great Britain and Bulgaria and demanded the opening of bank vaults abroad, the detailed search of the e-mails of those arrested, as well as the files of the relevant auction companies.
A critical point in this grand recovery of the stolen artifacts was the arrest of the leader and initiator of most of these illegal transactions, knowns as 'the Grandfather'.
The Grandfather, also known among his co-accused poachers as 'the ambassador', is a 69-year-old man, who has a long history with illicit trade of antiquities in Greece and Bulgaria, and he reportedly pulled the strings of most of the illegal dealerships.
According to the police investigation, the Grandfather had connections with farmers and hunters in various parts of Greece who, believing that he was working for archaeological organizations and museums, would contact him first after their clandestine excavations, to assess the value of their findings.
The Grandfather would then mediate with the various auction houses and would obtain a large amount of money in commission for his 'services'.
According to reports by the Greek police, the Grandfather was implicated in 1977 and 1979 in the cases of the infamous German archaeologist Stefan Geriger – who tried to smuggle ancient artifacts to Germany – and also in 1991, when he was again accused of illegal antiquity trades and illegal distribution of ancient Greek coins.
He was however, acquitted for all cases.
The arrest of The Grandfather is very important for the Greek police, as he has been the link connecting smugglers and auction houses for decades, while making millions by selling ancient artifacts that belong in Greek museums.
Police reportedly spent many months analysing recorded phone calls to decode a secret language of the suspects used in an attempt to cover their tracks.
Specifically, they called the coins “buttons”, the ancient tombs “underground shops”, while if an object was damaged or not of good quality, they called it “turtle” or “log”.
In addition, Greek authorities discovered a number of videos showing gravediggers in Greece searching for artifacts, with plans to sell them to Bulgaria and Great Britain.
As the NIS (National Intelligence Service of Greece) continues the investigation it has been revealed that numerous European and American auction houses have been involved in these illegal transactions involving the ancient Greek artifacts, with more details to be revealed at the Patras Board of Appeals in the following weeks.
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