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GREEK NEWS

The Most Notorious Antiquities Smuggler in Modern Greece

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Corinthian style bronze horse statuette from 6th century BC exhibited at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Credit: Jastrow/Wikimedia Commons CC BY 3.0

The name of German national Stefan Guericke will go down in history as the most notorious antiquities smuggler in modern Greece.

The audacious smuggler operated in Greece from the early 1960s until the late 1990s and had been imprisoned four times — unfortunately, however, he got out of jail that many times as well.

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The last time Guericke left prison was as an escapee. It was Saturday morning, October 22, 1994. But, as the saying goes, the criminal always returns to the scene of the crime.

In January 1995, he was extradited from Switzerland after his arrest for trying to sell stolen ancient Greek antiquities. He went to prison again but was subsequently mysteriously released by Greek authorities.

After his release, there was only hearsay about his antiquity-smuggling activities in the country. Some say he left for good at the end of 1996 — with a suitcase full of yet more precious antiquities.

According to another rumor, he continued his illegal activities until the early 2000s.

The beginning of Guericke’s life of smuggling

Stefan Guericke was born in 1931 in Indonesia to German parents. After graduating from school, he went to Munich, where he began his studies in archeology.

He specialized in prehistory and the fine arts, subjects on which he completed his doctoral dissertation. Among the skills he developed was his fluency in the Greek language.

He finished his studies with a PhD and traveled to Greece with the title of doctor of archaeology.

However, it turned out that his purpose was not to take part in archeological excavations and study new finds. The German scientist had decided to use his knowledge merely to become rich as a smuggler of precious antiquities.

Having a respected doctorate in archaeology, he had established connections in Europe in order to sell the stolen antiquities.

Guericke knew that Greece was an inexhaustible source of ancient wealth, and at that time much of it was almost unguarded and accessible to anyone who had the means and knowledge to explore it, even for illegal purposes.

The antiquities smuggler set out to locate and acquire his illegal merchandise and immediately promote it to foreign collectors.

It is impossible to accurately calculate the number and value of the antiquities he stole during the first period.

The first time Guericke was tracked down by Greek authorities was in November of 1963, while he was ready to take off from Greece on a private aircraft loaded with ancient jewelry of great value.

He was thenbrought to justice on charges of smuggling antiquities. However, with the help of a good lawyer who claimed that the jewelry was only imitation, he was released.

The criminal saga of the German antiquities smuggler

Tragically, Guericke’s first encounter with the law did not discourage him. He continued his illegal activities in various parts of Greece, frequently changing his identity, his appearance and his collaborators.

In June of 1968, Greek authorities tracked him down again when they dismantled a stolen antiquities ring. Finally getting to the heart of that ring, they found that Guericke had been the mastermind.

This time, the 37-year-old German antiquities smuggler was arrested, put on trial and sentenced to 12 months in prison.

Before serving half of his sentence in a Thessaloniki prison, however, the prosecutor requested that he should be transferred to Athens. During his transfer, the German man somehow managed to escape.

In November of 1968, the authorities arrested him again. This time, though, he was trying to escape from Greece in a car — which was loaded with ancient artifacts and fake papers.

This time the court showed no leniency. The judge sentenced him to seven and one half years in prison, which Guericke served on the island of Corfu.

Even though Guericke served his sentence in full, he had not repented of the error of his ways after he was released in 1975. On the contrary, he came out of prison more determined — and even more skillful.

His right hand became an Athenian contractor, and from then on the antiquities smuggler was not content with ancient statuettes and jewelry, but aimed higher.

This time he organized a ring that stole even more valuable objects, such as Byzantine icons of immense value, large statues, ancient clay amphorae, coins and other valuables.

For four years, the ring operated unnoticed, stealing priceless antiquities of incalculable value. However, a murder in which three of the ring members were involved brought the police onto their trail.

That investigation led to the ultimate mastermind, who again was none other than Stefan Guericke. The German and 32 members of the ring were remanded into custody.

However, the trial was delayed for almost five years. By then, 18 months of pre-trial detention had passed, so Guericke was released on parole and disappeared.

Most of the members of the German antiquities smuggler’s ring were tried in 1984. As it turned out, the rogue archaeologist had even not left the country.

Guericke had remained in Greece, using fake IDs and continuing to practice his illegal trade. In 1990 he rented a house in Exarchia, next to Greece’s Ministry of Culture.

On November 17 — the day of the Polytechnic Uprising celebrations — the archaeologist turned criminal mastermind believed that the authorities would be busy.

He took the opportunity to fill a van with boxes containing ancient artifacts of great value and took off.

However, after a citizen’s complaint, the police fortunately located the vehicle and arrested Guericke.

Last imprisonment and escape

This time the sentence for the German antiquities smuggler was harsher: He received fifteen years and nine months in prison.

The 60-year-old Guericke was transferred to the Alikarnassos prison on Crete. On October 18, 1994, claiming severe intestinal pain, he requested to be admitted to the hospital on an urgent basis.

Accompanied by police officers, he was taken to the University Hospital, where he remained for a few days until all the necessary examinations were performed.

In the early hours of October 22 — while the guard went to get coffee — the German smuggler snatched the opportunity to escape once again.

Although his absence was noticed within half an hour, the manhunt that followed did not bear fruit. An APB was sent all Greek law enforcement agencies, and to Interpol as well.

In January 1995, Greek police were informed that Stefan Guericke had been located and arrested in Switzerland, where he was negotiating the sale of ancient Greek artifacts.

After being extradited to Greece, he was taken to Korydallos Prison. Under unclear circumstances, he was once again released — and since then all traces of him have been lost.

According to some rumors, he left the country in June 1996, carrying more antiquities in his luggage. Many claim that he returned to continue his activities into the early 2000s.

Stefan Guericke has gone down in history as the biggest antiquities smuggler who ever lived and operated in Greece.

With the exception of the periods he spent behind bars, the rogue archaeologist operated  non-stop from the early 1960s until the late 1990s.

The value of the archaeological treasures he took out of Greece, although it can never be calculated accurately, is enormous.

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