ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greek police said Wednesday they have broken up a major gang that illegally dug up thousands of antiquities and exported them for sale by conniving European auction houses or directly to private buyers.
A spokesman for the southern Patras police directorate, which headed the 14-month nationwide investigation, said more than 50 people allegedly were involved in the criminal organization.
Twenty-six suspects have been arrested so far, ranging from the alleged leaders to people believed to have been carrying out the illegal, nighttime excavations, police spokesman Haralambos Sfetsos said. They face criminal charges that carry prison terms of 5 to 25 years.
Greece's rich history has for centuries attracted antiquities thieves, who feed a strong demand from private collectors and museums. Under law, all ancient artifacts found in the country are state property.
Police said they confiscated more than 2,000 relics that were dug up in various parts of Greece, mostly coins from as early as the 6th century B.C.
The illegally acquired items also included a large marble Cycladic figurine from the 3rd millennium B.C., gold butterfly-shaped jewelry, rings, bronze statuettes of animals, police photos showed. Authorities said they found two large stone statues — apparently from medieval times — hidden in a well in southern Greece.
The antiquities were mostly sold online by auction houses based in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Britain. Police said the auctioneers knew about the illegal provenance of the artifacts and sometimes helped finance the gang.
The auction houses were not named, in accordance with Greek laws on protecting suspects' identities.
"For very many of the coins we have full documentation, starting from when they were discovered in the earth to the auction at which they were sold," police spokesman Sfetsos told The Associated Press.
He said the paperwork would help Greek officials recover artifacts that already had been sold.
Police said the smuggling ring appeared to have been active for at least 10 years, targeting areas near — or even inside — known ancient sites and sometimes using satellite imagery to pinpoint potential locations.
The antiquities allegedly were smuggled out of Greece by the gang's leaders, who often delivered them in person to auction houses. They were auctioned off with fake documents that presented them as belonging to private European collections.
When two of the alleged ringleaders were arrested Sunday at the Greek-Bulgarian border, they allegedly were carrying nearly 1,000 coins and small artifacts concealed in the bumper of their car.
Costas Kantouris in Thessaloniki contributed to this report.