Cyprus police prevent multi-million deal to sell 4,000 year-old antiquities

Monday, January 25, 2010

Cyprus police bust large antiquities theft ring

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Authorities have busted a smuggling ring in Cyprus and recovered dozens of ancient artifacts it planned to sell for euro11 million (15.5 million), including a miniature gold coffin, silver coins and terra-cotta urns, police said Monday.

In what is believed to be the largest antiquities theft case of its kind in the Mediterranean island’s history, police seized the artifacts dating back thousands of years from homes, storage sheds and vehicles where they were being hidden.

The artifacts include copper and silver coins, terra-cotta urns and clay and limestone figurines believed to date from the Copper Age to around 400 B.C., Cyprus Antiquities Curator Maria Hadjicosti told The Associated Press.

Ten Cypriots were arrested during the raids over the weekend, and authorities were searching for another five suspects, including a Syrian man, police spokesman Michalis Katsounotos said. The suspects face charges of illegally possessing and trading in antiquities.

Police said the smugglers had planned to sell the artifacts in Cyprus, but would not identify the buyer. Authorities also said they were investigating where the artifacts had been obtained.

Katsounotos said this was Cyprus’ largest antiquities smuggling case in terms of the amount of recovered artifacts, their archaeological value and the number of arrests.

Most of the artifacts are urns primarily found around the southern coastal towns of Limassol and Paphos, Hadjicosti said. Some of the coins could date to Hellenistic and Roman times.

The curator said some of the recovered artifacts, including the gold coffin and other gold objects, don’t appear to be Cypriot, and more study was needed to determine their precise origins.

Communications Minister Nikos Nikolaides said the bust was conducted with the help of Greek authorities, but he wouldn’t provide details. He also said some of the antiquities may have been dug up from archaeological sites in the breakaway Turkish Cypriot north of the island.

Excavations on Cyprus have uncovered settlements dating back to around 9000 B.C. Cyprus then saw successive waves of colonization, including Phoenicians, Mycenaean Greeks, Romans and, in the Middle Ages, Franks and Venetians. The island was conquered by Ottoman Turks in 1571 and became part of the British Empire in 1878 before winning independence in 1960.

Violence between Cyprus’ majority Greek community and the Turkish community broke out shortly after, and the island has been divided along ethnic lines since a Turkish invasion in 1974 — prompted by a failed coup aimed at union with Greece.

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