NAPLES â€" In the small seaside town of Vietri sul Mare in southern Italy, where the highway from Naples to Reggio Calabria begins, I await my meeting with a member of the Calabrian mafia. Our appointment is at the Lloyd hotel, a "safe place" the man himself suggested.
I'm here undercover, posing as a rich art collector from Turin looking to buy ancient art arriving at the Italian port of Gioia Tauro from the ISIS stronghold of Sirte in Libya. These archeological finds have been looted and sacked from cities and territories conquered by the Islamic State in Libya and the Middle East. The group then sells them to the powerful organized crime networks in southern Italy in exchange for weapons, mainly Kalashnikov rifles and rocket-propelled grenades arriving from Moldova and Ukraine in long-standing supply links with the Russian mob.
The most prominent mediators and sellers in this secretive trade are the 'Ndrangheta of Calabria and the Camorra of the Campania region around Naples, the two most active and powerful crime syndicates in Italy. The transport of goods is handled by a fleet of ships and containers owned by Chinese crime networks.
A 60,000-euro severed head
Extremely punctual, the man tells me we cannot stay at the hotel to see the artifacts and negotiate a price. We walk down a narrow side street until we reach a new but seemingly abandoned butcher's workshop. An intense aroma of slaughtered meat overwhelms me as I enter. Large cured hams hang from hooks on the wall.
The man opens the item I've come to "purchase" and places it on the butcher's table, lifting a white cloth to reveal a marble emperor's head severed from a statue. The second-century Roman sculpting is exquisite, even if the statue's decapitation is visible and jarring.
The head is from Leptis Magna, a famous Ancient Roman city in Libya with spectacular ruins, much like the Roman sites of Cyrene and Sabratha elsewhere in the country. All of these towns have been under ISIS control at some point, and all have suffered looting at the hands of jihadists and Western-allied Islamist militias from the city of Misrata alike.
The Libyan archeological site of Sabratha â€" Photo: David Holt
It's now time to make a deal. The man asks for 60,000 euros ($65,900) for the emperor head. He's an able salesman, expertly discussing ancient history and art criticism while pitching me everything from looted Libyan art to other works stolen from Greek necropolises in Italy. As he tells the history behind each object, he's always careful to note that he found each item "two years ago," the legal limit to avoid the most serious legal consequences of abetting the illegal trade in antiquities.
"This head comes from Libya. We trade arms in exchange for statues, vases, urns," he says. "That's how it works. Everything arrives at Gioia Tauro. It used to be here in Naples, but then something changed."
He adds: "We have many problems now because the Mediterranean is full of ships and patrols to find illegal migrants. If you want antiquities from the Middle East you have to go directly to Gioia Tauro, but I advise you against it."
Alliance of convenience
Until recently, American museums and art buyers were the primary customers of the 'Ndrangheta's illicit trade. After the U.S. authorities discovered their link to arms sales to ISIS they cracked down on the business, and now most of the buyers hail from Russia, China, Japan, and the United Arab Emirates. I keep asking him for more expensive and valuable artwork, and he finally shows me photos of a rare find: the sculpted head of a Greek divinity.
"This used to have a bronze or copper crown. It comes from Libya and it's worth a million euros, but I can give it to you for 800,000, plus transport fees," he says. The dealer says there's a flourishing market for these antiquities, and cited a representative of "a famous American actor," but the deal fell through. "Now this will either end up in a museum somewhere or with a private collector in Russia," he says.
I balk on his offer, telling him I'll get back to him in three days with my final decision. Finally we part ways.
The booming trade in looted artwork is proof of an axis between ISIS and the mafia networks of southern Italy, a commercial alliance born of opportunism. Priceless art arrives at the port of Gioia Tauro from ISIS-held territory through Turkey and Libya, and eastern European weapons flow in the opposite direction. As the tide begins to turn against ISIS on the battlefield, the "Caliphate" is starting to look more and more like just another criminal network, much like its unlikely allies in the 'Ndrangheta.