ATHENS, Greece – Prosecutors are investigating whether nearly 300 antiquities seized from a villa on a remote island last week are connected to an ongoing dispute between the Greek government and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the culture minister said Tuesday.
Last week's discovery was one of the biggest illegal antiquities cases in recent years, and police suspect international smuggling rings were involved, Giorgos Voulgarakis said.
However, he said there was no evidence yet supporting media reports of a link between the police raids and a dispute between Greece and the Getty Museum. Greece is seeking the return of four ancient artifacts from the museum, arguing that they were illegally exported.
"It is too early to draw conclusions," Voulgarakis said. "Greek prosecutors are investigating the possible illegal acts linked with the presence in the Getty of the Greek antiquities."
He said this was "one of the most complex cases in recent years" and involved pieces from the Mediterranean and elsewhere. He said many of the finds appeared to have been bought at the Christie's and Sotheby's international auction houses, but none had been declared to national authorities, as Greek law demands.
"There are seals and packaging which indicate that there was commercial trafficking going on," Voulgarakis said.
Police on March 12 confiscated an estimated 280 artifacts during raids at the villa on tiny Schoinoussa, in the antiquities-rich Cyclades island chain, and at a house in Athens. A Culture Ministry statement said the properties belonged to the Papadimitriou shipping family.
Police made no arrests and said the owners were in London during the raids. Voulgarakis said ministry officials would evaluate the seized artifacts, which included modern copies, before charges could be pressed.
"This may work as an international signal that will sensitize many more people to the problem of the illegal trafficking and possession of antiquities," Voulgarakis said.
The artifacts — some more than 3,000 years old — include a headless marble statue of Aphrodite, the ancient goddess of love, dating to Roman times; a marble sarcophagus decorated with sculpted human and animal masks; three marble busts; and two granite sphinxes.
There also were dozens of marble architectural fragments, including 24 columns and 17 capitals, many of which were built into a modern chapel on the 6-acre estate surrounding the villa.
"The general impression is that the owners wanted to create the ambiance of a Roman villa," a Culture Ministry statement said.
Despoina Papadimitriou, named by police and Greek media as the apparent owner, is the sister of the late Christo Michailidis, a London-based art dealer who was a Getty supplier of Greek, Roman and Etruscan antiquities.
The Culture Ministry says the Getty antiquities Greece wants back include a gold funerary wreath dating to about 400 B.C., a 6th century B.C. female statue and two sculpted funerary markers — including one excavated in 1922 by archaeologists on the northern island of Thassos.
"We will take all necessary action to seek, in the most efficient way, the return of these four ancient artifacts," Voulgarakis said.
He said that if ongoing negotiations with the Getty proved fruitless, the ministry would take legal action.
Last month, police seized more than 60 illegal antiquities in two homes on the island of Paros, near Schoinoussa, and arrested one suspected antiquities smuggler.
Police said one Paros home belonged to Marion True, a former Getty curator currently on trial in Rome over objects allegedly stolen from Italy.
True has denied any wrongdoing.
Senior Greek prosecutor Yiannis Diotis, who is leading the Schoinoussa investigation, visited Rome before the raids to confer with Italian authorities.