Police found 10,000 ancient Roman artifacts and arrested 23 suspects. However, many pieces have already been sold at auction.
Italian police busted an international smuggling ring that was illegally selling ancient Roman antiquities from southern Italy, authorities announced on Monday.
A unit of Italy's Carabinieri military police responsible for cultural crimes announced the bust.
Two suspects were arrested and 21 more were placed under house arrest, said Bartolo Taglietti, who heads up the Carabinieri art squad in the southern region of Calabria, where most of the arrests were made. A few of the suspects were detained in Milan and other Italian cities.
Taglietti added that many of the 10,000 stolen artifacts had already been sold off, some in prestigious auction houses in London, Munich, Dijon, and other European cities.
Italian law dictates that all antiquities found within the country's borders belong to the state.
Most of the objects discovered during the police operation were from the fourth and third centuries BC, and included terracotta vases, necklaces and decorated plates.
Using a drone, police were able to catch the smugglers red-handed as they dug around sites in Calabria. Unlike the painstaking work with hand-held tools carried out by archeologists, the criminals used an excavator. Although they attempted to disguise themselves by wearing ski masks, the drone was able to pick up the license plate numbers of their vehicles.
Italian authorities had traced the suspects across several countries, and were assisted by police from Germany, France, Serbia, and the UK.
es/aw (AP, dpa)