Officials Recover Thousands of Cultural Goods in Crackdown, Including Roman Gold Coins

International police and U.S. Customs and Border Protection performed checks at museums, border crossing points, airports and auction houses

Two people in police uniforms stand behind a table covered in blue tablecloth, upon which sit several fragments of sculptures
Italy's Arma dei Carabinieri seized 79 archaeological goods last year. Courtesy Interpol

A four-month operation across 28 countries led to the seizure of more than 9,000 cultural goods between June and September of last year, Interpol announced last week.

During the sting—the sixth and latest phase of what’s known as Operation Pandora—investigators from the international crime-fighting organization ramped up checks at border crossing points, airports, auction houses, museums and private homes, according to an Interpol statement. Authorities arrested 52 individuals related to the stolen goods. More than 170 additional investigations are still ongoing, the organization reports.

Operation Pandora first began in 2016. To date, the program has resulted in 407 arrests and the recovery of 147,050 stolen or illegally trafficked goods, reports Harriet Sherwood for the Guardian.

The 2021 project, reports Sarah Cascone for Artnet News, was a joint effort between Interpol, Europol and the World Customs Organization (WCO), and was led by the Spanish authorities.

Officials recovered stolen statuettes, musical instruments, archaeological finds, pieces of pottery, paintings, furniture and more, according to the statement.

A view of a table covered in piles of coins and other small archaeological artifacts
French Customs seized 4,231 archaeological objects, including the coins pictured.  Courtesy Interpol

Amateur metal detecting is a popular—and profitable—pastime for many Europeans in recent years, but some have employed the hobby illegally. Seven European countries confiscated a combined total of 90 metal detectors used for illicit looting at archaeological sites, per the Guardian.

Highlights of the past four months include the recovery of a trove of golden coins that date to the ancient Roman Empire, per the statement. Spanish officers discovered the coins at a well-known auction house in Madrid, and later identified which archaeological site the coins had been looted from. Altogether, the coins could have been sold for an estimated half a million euros (about $550,000) on the black market, authorities note in the statement.

French Customs officers also seized 4,231 archaeological objects—including bells, buckles, rings and pieces of pottery—that had been looted by a single individual from archaeology sites. And United States Customs and Border Protection agents intercepted a shipment with 13 ancient Mexican artifacts, some dating to the Aztec period, including one skull and two adzes or chopping axes.

One of the objects was recovered using brand-new technology. Last May, the international police organization debuted a smartphone app, ID-Art, that allows users to search within a vast database of more than 52,000 missing artworks and identify looted works, according to the statement.

Using the app, Romanian police were able to identify a 13th-century processional cross that had been stolen in 2016 from the Evangelical Church Museum of Cisnădie. As Andreea Tobias reports for Romanian news source MediaFax via Google-translation, the suspect in the crime was identified as a 50-year-old man from Cisnădie. Local legend holds that early representatives of the Saxon community brought the cross with them when they settled in Transylvania for the first time.

Previous phases of Interpol’s undercover operations to retrieve stolen antiquities have resulted in similarly large caches of recovered goods. In May 2020, the organization announced that two programs, Athena II and Pandora IV, had successfully recovered 19,000 artifacts from 103 countries in the fall of 2019.

“The hundreds of arrests and investigations launched—and thousands of objects seized—must be a wake-up call for those in government and in the art world,” Deborah Lehr, founder of the nonprofit Antiquities Coalition,  Artnet News’ Taylor Dafoe reported at the time. “This is a critical reminder, coming at an equally critical time, that when it comes to ancient art, buyers should beware.”