A case of daylight pillaging

A Civil Guard operation has led to the arrest of retired villager Ricardo Granada He is thought to have dug more than 4,000 archeological items up from Celtiberian sites

Some of the pieces recovered by the Civil Guard as part of Operation Helmet.
Some of the pieces recovered by the Civil Guard as part of Operation Helmet.ULY MARTÍN (EL PAÍS)

Everyone in Aranda de Moncayo knew what Ricardo Granada Pérez did for a living. He used metal detectors to find old helmets, coins, vases and armor at the numerous Celtiberian sites in the area. In this village of 198 residents, steep streets and harsh winters in Zaragoza province, Granada's activities were certainly no secret. Nor were they in the nearby municipalities of Illueca and Jarque, where people saw him come and go as he pleased.

"I've seen him with the metal detectors more than once, but since the authorities didn't say anything about it... He's been doing it for 30 years, but we didn't know whether he was finding anything," says Miguel Galavia, 77, a retired electrician. Occasionally he would ask Ricardo Granada whether he'd found anything valuable. "He used to say that he found very few things, and that they were never in one piece."

The locals did not know what kind of treasure trove they were standing on. The Celtiberians, who lived in north-central Spain in pre-Roman times, left behind a rich legacy of metalwork attesting to their historical importance. In Aranda alone, there are 45 known sites. It was a point of passage between Aragón and Castilla, and had many water sources and metal deposits.

Galavia points his walking stick at one of Granada's favorite prospecting sites: the Celtiberian village of Arátikos. To the untrained eye, it looks like nothing more than a large mound of red earth, but knowledgeable people see numerous signs of an enticing past. "This is a piece of ceramic from a vase; that's a bit of bronze and that over there is iron, which looks burnt, probably from the time when the Romans razed the town," says a person who helped with the investigation and who asked for anonymity. Two large stones stuck in the ground parallel to each other probably mark a tomb that has been raided.

The Civil Guard believes this to be the work of Ricardo Granada, a retired man aged around 60 who allegedly conducted one of the most extensive and prolonged acts of archeological pillaging in Spain. For at least 15 years, he located thousands of valuable items and sold them abroad under the noses of Spanish authorities, who did nothing to stop him despite warnings from the German government.

On February 13 of this year, after a months-long investigation, Civil Guard officers raided Granada's apartment, inside an unassuming yellow brick building in the village of Illueca. The size of the trove took law enforcement officials by surprise. There were 4,000 archeological items from diverse cultures, in particular from the Celtiberian period, with an abundance of jewels and other pieces typically found in warrior burials of the period, according to the public prosecutor's report.

Sources close to the investigation said the officers were taken aback at the sight of Roman and Celtiberian coins casually stashed away inside half a coconut, puréed food containers and old Ferrero Rocher chocolate boxes. Things were piled up without any kind of order. A collection of projectiles used by Celtiberian warriors was sitting on top of the television set.

It took him a while to confess, but eventually Ricardo Granada agreed to collaborate and took the Civil Guard to the places where he'd been digging for years without a permit. The Spanish criminal code establishes jail terms of one to three years for damaging archeological sites.

Ricardo Granada, who was arrested as part of Operation Helmet.
Ricardo Granada, who was arrested as part of Operation Helmet.

Despite the apparent chaos, it was not the work of an amateur. Granada owned six metal detectors and one ground-penetrating radar device, which can detect objects and variations in the subsurface of the ground. It is ideal for locating burial sites, and it is precisely the kind of machine used to find mass graves from the Civil War era.

Gloria Pérez, an archeologist at Zaragoza University and a native of the area, is one of the top experts on the Aranda site, about which she wrote a paper in 2010. She remembers that sometimes, when she was going to dig in a particular spot, someone else had already been there the night before. The seven hectares that comprise the historical settlement of the Titos tribe are completely unprotected: there is no fence, no surveillance, and no signs. Pérez says that the artifacts found in Granada's home included "a very important panoply, including falcatas [Iberian swords], belt buckles and more."

Yet there is a notable absence of helmets and suits of armor among the 4,000 pieces found at Granada's house. "Most of the recovered material is from warrior burial sites. [...] There is a noticeable lack of weaponry that came with the helmet, which suggests that this material may have already been sold to third parties," reads the public prosecutor's report.

The helmets are tremendously valuable, and not easy to find. Of the thousands of graves dug up in the early 20th century by Enrique de Aguilera y Camboa, the 17th Marquis of Cerralbo, at Celtiberian necropolises such as Aguilar de Anguita, Luzaga, El Atance, La Olmeda, Arcóbriga and Alpanseque, he only found the remains of three helmets. All of them were deformed and fragmented due to funeral rituals. None were ever found whole and shiny, like the ones that have been very occasionally sold across Europe for a total of nearly half a million euros, and which presumably came out of Arátikos.

He's been doing it for 30 years, but we didn't know if he was finding anything"

Granada showed a public interest in Arátikos in the early 1990s. Sources close to the investigation said that he bought four or five plots of land there - dry earth with just a few almond trees growing on it. Back then, Granada was living with the daughter of the local Civil Guard sergeant. He offered the mayor of Aranda de Moncayo a deal: building some 50 bungalows next to the Maidevera reservoir in exchange for rebuilding the Celtiberian settlement. The local authorities agreed, and Granada built himself a wooden home near the water. On the other side of the reservoir is the boat he bought on the Cantabrian coast and fixed to the ground to turn it into a open-air bar.

The only human in sight here now is Juan Pablo San Juan, who has taken his 800 sheep out to pasture. "They said he had found gold, but we didn't know what there was," he says before continuing on his way.

When exactly the helmets left Aranda remains a mystery. Granada, who refused to talk to EL PAÍS for this story, did say one thing over the phone: "This is an issue from before you were born, from 1975 or 1976." In another brief conversation, he alleged that "never in my frigging life have I gone into a site."

The helmets that scholars believe came from Arátikos were first seen on the market in 1990. The Römisch-Germanisches Zentralmuseum (RGZM) in Mainz, Germany raised the alert. In May of that year, the Swiss-based, Spanish-born antiques dealer Fernando Cunillera got in touch with the RGZM, where one of the world's top authorities on ancient helmets, Markus Egg, was working. Cunillera was seeking advice regarding some exceptional bronze items that he thought the RGZM might be interested in purchasing. According to Cunillera, it was a "treasure" uncovered by pillagers in Aranda de Moncayo (the municipality that Granada operated out of). Cunillera left two of these helmets at the museum so its technicians could examine them. The purchase offer was declined, and instead museum chiefs alerted Interpol about the evidently illegal origin of these items. Eventually, a wealthy Austrian businessman named Axel Guttmann bought all 18 helmets.

It took him a while to confess, but eventually Granada agreed to collaborate

Meanwhile, the sacking continued. Around 1992, Granada even brought in a truck and a digger to take away the earth and sift it in the comfort of his own home, the neighbors report. The road he drove on is still perfectly visible, and so is the bite he took out of the hillside. The local government finally put a stop to this and reported back to the regional government of Aragón. This alert, like all the others, got lost in a maze of time and bureaucracy. Regional authorities did send an archeologist to examine the site, but nothing came of it, as far as the villagers know.

In 2008, the helmets reappeared at an auction house. Their owner had died in Berlin seven years earlier, and his children were beginning to sell off his vast ancient art collection. There were two Spanish helmets dated between the fourth and second centuries BC on the catalog of the Munich auction house Hermann Historica. These pieces have been described as "the most important set of armaments ever found in the entire Western Mediterranean" by top experts on the matter, such as Martín Almagro Gorbea, a professor at Madrid's Complutense University and member of the Royal History Academy.

The catalog said the helmets were "probably" from the Spanish province of Soria. The experts at RGZM were certain that these were the same items that had been offered to the museum 18 years earlier. Dr Michael Müller-Karpe took the case to Munich's state prosecutor and had the auction suspended for three months. The German justice system got in touch with the Spanish government, asking it to claim the helmets back. But the Spanish petition never arrived, and the two helmets were finally returned to the auction house, where they were sold for 19,000 and 25,000 euros, respectively. It was a low price considering their worth, but buyers were running the risk of having to return them if Spain finally claimed them back.

The following year, in April 2009, two more helmets were auctioned at Hermann Historica. One of them even illustrated the catalog cover. Clearly, there was no more fear of Spanish claims. The final prices were significantly higher, too: 30,000 and 35,000 euros, respectively. Seven months later, two more helmets went for 38,000 and 43,000 euros.

Buyers risked having to return the helmets if Spain finally claimed them back

Meanwhile, Müller-Karpe and the RGZM insisted and filed a second complaint. But the auctions went on, and two more helmets were sold for the record price of 77,000 euros each.

Then, a young Spanish researcher who had joined the RGZM that year, Raimon Graells, asked his colleagues back in Spain for help. Some of the people who heeded his plea included Alberto Lorrio, professor of prehistory at Alicante University, and Fernando Quesada of Madrid's Autónoma University. Both men got in touch with Martín Almagro Gorbea of the Royal History Academy, asking him to intercede before the Culture Ministry.

Almagro Gorbea drafted a report and sent it to the ministry, but obtained no reply. In September 2011 he turned to the Ombudsman, asking him to investigate the ministry's inaction over this issue. It was soon after that that the Supreme Court's environment public prosecutor opened an investigation that has culminated in Granada's arrest.

Now, prosecutors hope that the artifacts found at Granada's home will help prove that the helmets came from the same source, opening the door to an official claim to get them back. Experts also want to analyze whether, as they suspect, the headpieces have been restored, and with what materials.

Experts want to analyze whether the headpieces have been restored

Faced with criticism over this issue, the Culture Ministry keeps saying that "the law has been observed, and this requires the provision of evidence" regarding the origin of the items. Following Granada's arrest, the ministry insisted that all there is so far is "circumstantial evidence" but not actual proof, and that "the obligation to find [proof] lies with the justice system and the Civil Guard, not the ministry."

Ministry spokespeople now claim that they have been discreet about this issue to ensure the success of the so-called Operation Helmet. "If the investigation finally provides evidence that enables the case to be reopened, then we will request an international letter rogatory."

This discretion on the part of Spanish authorities has allowed the auctions to keep taking place. The last one was in October 2012 at Christie's in London, where three more helmets were sold, except this time they were passed off as Greek.

"It's a strategy used in the illegal antiques trade," explains Karpe-Müller. "You attribute the origin with the least possible precision in order to dilute the possibility of determining its real origin."

The obligation to find proof lies with the Civil Guard, not the Culture Ministry"

The three helmets were sold for 21,656, 27,844 and 40,147 euros, respectively. The figures are lower, perhaps because of the headpieces' lower quality.

The experts Graells, Lorrio and Quesada still cannot understand why the Spanish authorities did nothing to stop the stream of auctions. They are certain about the Spanish origin of the helmets because they are accustomed to working with this type of material.

"These helmets were produced exclusively in the [Iberian] peninsula; we know of about 30 of them, and their morphological characteristics make them different from other ancient helmets, even if they are closely related to - and in some cases even derive from - Italic shapes. These are unique pieces that alter the historical discourse of the peninsula," they say.

All three of them have co-authored Cascos hispano-calcídicos. Símbolos de las élites celtibéricas (or, Hispanic-Calcidic Helmets: Symbols of the Celtiberian Elites), a soon-to-be published book that takes a look at the half-a-dozen Celtiberian helmets on view at Spanish museums and also at the 18 helmets of discord. Their research has traced some of these to their new locations, including six at the Museum of Classical Art at Mougins, in southern France, and two at the homes of private collectors from Catalonia.

The sale of Spain's archeological heritage has never been legal

"If it were proven that the pieces are from Aranda de Moncayo, that would be a bonus, but what is unquestionable is that they were exported without permits, and so the justice system must act. The sale of Spain's archeological heritage has never been legal; our impression is that items whose existence is only documented in the peninsula, and whose exit from Spain we can date approximately, are clearly illegal exports. They should be accessible to the public and to researchers."

The amount of money that changed hands at the auction houses is in stark contrast with Granada's austere lifestyle. He owns a blue Nissan Patrol that has seen better days - "The tractor," as a neighbor calls it - and a Ford Escort that's over five years old. Although he has three homes, lately he has been living at his in-laws' place, a modest home in Jarque, a village of 500 residents and two bars located 13 kilometers from Aranda. "He probably got nothing for it; the intermediaries likely kept it all," says one local. The case will provide fodder for gossip for the coming years at this and other villages in the area.

According to Civil Guard figures, between 400 and 500 archeological sites are sacked in Spain every year. In 75 percent of cases the pillagers use metal detectors, but there are probably a lot more raids that never get reported or that the authorities never hear about.

The mayor of Aranda de Moncayo, Rosario Cabrera of the Socialist Party, made a request several months ago to have the area declared a Cultural Heritage Site. "Arátikos still has a lot to tell us," she says, sitting inside her cold office.

But protection does not necessarily mean that the sacking will come to an end. "The problem will not be solved by putting a police officer at every site, but by creating awareness that our heritage is part of our legacy," says Alberto Lorrio. These scholars say that archeological theft not only decontextualizes the items, but also deletes information that they might provide in their original location. "The auctioned helmets constitute a unique set in the Mediterranean; their numbers and state of conservation suggest they did not come from a necropolis but from some sort of sanctuary or ritual deposit whose nature we are unfamiliar with."

Lorrio believes it is essential "for the pillager to provide information about the exact location of the finds, not only the 4,000 pieces seized from him but also the helmets, because these sites need to be protected."

"Only by studying these artifacts can we learn about the customs and beliefs of these ancient societies," adds Lorrio. "And that is the only important point in this whole story."

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