But even as pressure grows on museums in Europe and the US to return disputed objects to their countries of origin, police in Greece warn that the looting of ancient sites shows no sign of abating.

George Gligoris, head of the Greek police force's special department against antiquity smuggling, said: "It's a complete free-for-all, the situation is very hard to control.

"And in some parts of the country, the spread of illegal digs is simply explosive."
 
Gligoris heads a team of 19 officers who cover all of Greece, a country with untapped archaeological wealth still hidden in its soil and sea depths.

In major cities such as Athens and Salonika, construction routinely runs into ancient graves, temples and homes.

Monitoring is tougher in the Greek countryside, where farmers often stumble upon archaeological finds while working their fields.

Antiquity smuggling

According to police figures, 89 people were arrested on charges  of antiquity smuggling in 2005, and over 800 objects of various types and sizes were confiscated in the greater Athens area.

In 2004, the equivalent numbers were 90 arrests and over 2800 objects.

"The first thing Greeks think of when they find an ancient object in their field is how to sell it abroad," says Gligoris.

Ancient silver coins are among
the loot confiscated by police

The price of an ancient object depends on age, rarity and volume.

According to recent press reports, a Roman-era statuette can fetch around 15,000 euros ($18,000), while a life-sized Classical Greek bronze statue from the 5th century BC recently sold for seven million dollars (5.8 million euros).

Moving through clandestine channels, illegally procured  antiquities from Greece frequently end up in private collections outside the country, and have even been known to grace the displays of European and American museums.

And of late, the police have found out that robbers have also acquired a worrying taste for Byzantine-era religious masterpieces, which are both abundant and readily available at churches and monasteries across the country.

One 16th century Byzantine icon stolen from a monastery in the northern peninsula of Halkidiki was estimated to be worth 1.5 million euros, Greek press reports said.

Wholesale robbery

"The robbers even dismantle entire sculpted icon screens," says Gligoris. "Church icons have turned from objects of faith to objects  of art that some people collect."

The current trend governing the trade of antiquities, however, could be moving in Greece's favour.

Last month, New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art signed with Italy a deal on the return of disputed antiquities, including a 2500-year-old Greek vase that has been the centrepiece of the museum's holdings for decades.

"The robbers even dismantle entire sculpted icon screens. Church icons have turned from objects of faith to objects  of art that some people collect"

George Gligoris, 
head of Greek police force's antiquity smuggling department

With a number of repatriation cases of its own now pending, including four items sought from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, Greece is keen to follow Italy's example.

George Voulgarakis, the new Greek culture minister, recently announced his intention to meet his Italian counterpart Rocco Buttiglione and Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Metropolitan Museum.

"We are currently working together with the Italians on a number  of objects," says Gligoris, who has visited Rome on several occasions in the past months along with the senior Greek prosecutor investigating the illegal trade in Greek antiquities.
 
Gligoris argues that the Italians "have things well in hand. Prosecutor Paolo Ferri, with whom we are co-operating, has spent 20years battling this issue. Now, he is reaping the fruits of an excellent effort."