Police recover artifacts stolen from Olympia museum

Greek police have recovered all 76 artifacts stolen from the Museum of the History of the Olympic Games in Olympia in February of this year. On February 17th, 2012 two masked men, one of them carrying an AK-47, disabled the alarm, broke into the museum and held up the sole security guard during a shift change. It appears the thieves picked the wrong museum, confusing the smaller Olympics-themed museum with the larger Archaeological Museum of Olympia. They demanded that the security guard hand over a pair of gold wreaths. When she pointed out that there are no such artifacts in that particular museum and refused to help them steal anything else, they tied her up and gagged her. They then smashed and grabbed indiscriminately, ultimately making off with 75 bronze and clay artifacts and one gold signet ring.

Ring with gold bull-dancing seal, ca. 1400 B.C.It was that ring, the most valuable of the stolen objects, which led police to the thieves. The ring is of royal provenance, having been discovered in a royal chamber tomb in Antheia, a town in the Peloponnese region of Messenia. It dates to the late Bronze Age Mycenaean period, from around 1400 B.C. The large oval crown depicts two male athletes leaping over a bull. The gold ring was on loan from a museum in Messenia when it was stolen.

After lying low for nine months, the thieves attempted to sell the ring to a buyer who turned out to be an undercover police officer. Their initial asking price was 1.5 million euros ($1,943,000) which was reduced via haggling to a paltry 300,000 euros ($387,000). Just in case it wasn’t obvious enough they were dealing in stolen goods, that price drop would have confirmed it beyond a doubt. First the wrong museum, then the attempted sale to a cop, then the awful negotiating skills. These guys were such amateurs I almost feel sorry for them. Almost.

The man attempting to sell the ring was arrested. Upon interrogation, he turned over his co-conspirators. On November 24th, police announced the arrest of three men staying in a hotel in the city of Patra just a few miles from the museum. One was a 50-year-old contractor from Patra, the second a 36-year-old unemployed man from Patra and the third, considered the “mastermind” of this heist, if such a term can be applied, is a 41-year-old unemployed man originally from Patra but now residing in Athens where he sells trinkets to make a living. So yeah, amateurs. They thought they could make a quick buck selling gold only to find that they went to the wrong place and then couldn’t sell any of the objects they’d stolen. Two other suspects are still at large, a 58-year-old man and a 33-year-old, both from Patra.

It’s notable that all the suspects are Greek. The museum security guard said at the time of the theft that they spoke broken Greek. She thought they might have been Albanian, and at the time police did pursue some Albanian jewel thieves thinking they might have had a hand in the museum caper as well. See the links in Conflict Antiquities’ rundown for more details on the police investigation and the various international avenues that now appear to have been abandoned.

Several artifacts were found on the alleged thieves, and once they were arrested, the suspects revealed the location of the rest of the stolen artifacts. The thieves had put them in a bag and buried them in a field two miles from the scene of the crime. The gold ring, a bronze statuette of a victorious athlete, a number of clay lamps, bronze tripods, bronze wheels, charioteers, clay and bronze horses and bulls, everything stolen was found. (Again, see the excellent Conflict Antiquities blog for pictures and descriptions of every stolen artifact.) They will be returned to the museum next week.

Artifacts stolen from Olympia museum