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The Private Detective Who Devoted His Life to Saving Greece’s Heritage

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George Tsoukalis, the protector of Greek antiquities. Credit: Greek Reporter

George Tsoukalis, the private detective who has devoted his life to saving and protecting Ancient Greece’s cultural heritage, talks exclusively about his rare profession.

Tsoukalis is the famous “hunter” of the illicit dealers of antiquities and has solved 65 of the 67 cases he has undertaken. Thanks to him and his team, 16,375 ancient priceless objects have been recovered, and instead of ending up in private collections, they have attained a well-deserved spot in a Greek museum.

Now in his 30th year of service, Tsoukalis has pursued this line of work merely for the joy attained in managing to preserve Greek relics.

He tells Greek Reporter that personal fulfillment and satisfaction are the only forms of compensation provided to him, but he has kept at it for three decades in the hopes to protect Greek cultural heritage; this would be considered the equivalent to protection of our borders, for which so much Greek blood has been lost over centuries, he says.

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Tsoukalis finds looted antiquities. Credit: Greek Reporter

People’s appreciation throughout Greece is his greatest compensation, and he has received six international awards, as well as innumerable distinctions from various bodies, including from the Greek Police which has supported Tsoukalis in his endeavors.

George Tsoukalis tells Greek Reporter that it all began in 1991 “when a journalist publicly insulted him because, as a private investigator, he turned a blind eye to the huge problem of illegal antiquities trading. From thenceforth on, I became obsessed!”

George Tsoukalis in the theatre of Patras
George Tsoukalis speaking to Greek Reporter. Credit: Greek Reporter

“The first case was an antiquities loot in Megara,” Tsoukalis reveals, “where two people were arrested. Immediately, I became addicted to this work. It was a type of adrenaline rush for me, and I consistently started pursuing such cases on a voluntary basis.”

According to Tsoukalis, his efforts in quashing the illegal trade of antiquities have been immensely rewarding.

He does, however, disclose the costly nature of the occupation resulting from expenses for informants, as well as attendance costs both in Greece and abroad. He reveals that his “last case in Rhodes cost [him] over 5,000 euros, but whatever I spend, I do it with my heart,” he says.

Nonetheless, the reward is huge, Tsoukalis explains, as he is able to contribute to his homeland. Indeed, his individual efforts for his homeland are quite unique and immensely necessary.

“A couple of days before I solve a case, I may not sleep at all. I experience intense anxiety and a huge adrenaline rush. However, when it comes down to it, I feel absolute joy and peace. I feel like an Epirote, as if I’ve done my small part in contributing to my homeland,” he continues.

Tsoukalis goes on to explain that “the recognition of the world and of all who shake [his] hand is the utmost form of fulfillment for [him].”

“I never believed in money,” he says, as “this is only a means of survival, but mental wealth can allow you to live your life with a sense of satisfaction, peace, and joy. Contributing to the homeland is the utmost important thing that [pursuing my line of work offers you].”

Protecting the cultural heritage of Greece

Issues with looted Greek antiquities can be traced back to the Middle Ages and to Lord Elgin. But the question is if it’s really so serious in the 21st century? We ask the man who has devoted his life to this field of work.

“The problem is huge,” is his immediate answer and reveals that he “recently spoke with an expert from the Ministry of Culture about this.”

In his conversation with the expert from the Ministry of Culture, Tsoukalis was told that “out of a hundred stolen antiquities, only 10% are ever located and that only a single instance of looting is investigated and solved.” The expert further commented on the losses to Greek cultural heritage as a result of stolen antiquities.

“Personally,” says Tsoukalis, “the issue of protecting our cultural heritage in Greece is the most significant of all…because no museum in the whole world that wants to be considered prestigious lacks Greek antiquities.”

Commenting on the cultural significance of Greece, Tsoukalis maintains that Greece is “a superpower in culture; this is why UNESCO has chosen the Parthenon as its logo. Greek names and elements of Greek culture are generally abundant wherever one goes, and while not exactly experts in banking, industry, and production, Greeks are at the forefront of culture.”

Throughout the interview with Greek Reporter, passers-by walk up to and greet George Tsoukalis. A handshake and congratulatory words or words of gratitude are exchanged, and he graciously responds with a smile for everyone.

How the criminals of cultural heritage “work”

George Tsoukalis explains how criminal organizations active in looting and laundering of antiquities work and how they locate their “prey.”

According to Tsoukalis, these organizations locate relics through illegal excavations, as stolen antiquities are not preferred; stolen relics have been recorded, and as such, circumstances surrounding antiquities that have been recorded in any way are not favorable to the organizations. Rather, reveals Tsoukalis, they tend to stay away from stolen antiquities altogether.

Illegal organizations, as per Tsoukalis, usually have information about a particular area, and, using special equipment, their team then goes and digs and carries the relics out to start the process of laundering.

Laundering of antiquities, explains Tsoukalis, is a process that involves “the selling of the objects into a labyrinthine system of offshore companies where they are sold and re-sold about four to five times until these objects circulate back to the illegal organization. Relics are thus repossessed through ‘legal’ means so as to allow them to be resold for profit at auctions abroad.”

Tsoukalis further explains the function of auction houses and clarifies that these auction houses solely check lost antiquities already registered with UNESCO but do not bother examining other objects (objects not registered with UNESCO, in other words); rather than attributing relics to countries of origin, profit is preferred.

One may wonder what the main motive for all this is. “To a certain extent,” reveals Tsoukalis, “it is vanity, but when one puts the artifacts in a private museum, it is also a form of investment; to reiterate, no serious museum in the world lacks Greek relics.”

Tsoukalis maintains that “anything that has the aura of Greece gives an added value… I consider the archaeologists to be national bidders. Because I consider our cultural heritage just as important as the 132,000 square kilometers of our land.”

Tsoukalis during an arrest of a dealer
Tsoukalis during an arrest of a dealer. CRedit: Greek Reporter

The private investigator pauses and then notes that “Lord Elgin is the epitome of that! The epitome of thief, robber. We should not call them Elgin Marbles, we should call them the sculptures of the Parthenon,” he maintains.

The biggest case George Tsoukalis has solved

Asked about the biggest case he has solved, Tsoukalis does not ponder too long before answering.

“That of Corinth” he exclaims and proceeds to clarify that it was “a case that [he’d] been working on for 23 consecutive months, one that required perseverance and patience but was only second in importance to the case of the terrorist organization, November 17th, which was under investigation at the same time.”

Tskoukalis gives an account of how he began and carried out his investigation regarding the Corinth case in order to slowly but surely put the pieces of the puzzle together and uncover the perpetrators behind the massive theft (of the Corinth antiquities); one day it was communicated to him that the perpetrators had, in fact, been identified and imprisoned only after it was leaked that a fee from the Ministry of Culture would be presented to anyone with information.

The party who provided the information leading to the arrest of the individuals behind the Corinth theft was jailed in the United States upon which the American embassy provided a visa so as to allow for the informant’s release, reveals Tsoukalis.

Along the way, the private investigator explains, the perpetrators were trapped. UNESCO was also informed and recorded the looted antiquities, thus rendering the objects completely useless to the perpetrators who had been hiding the relics in a Miami warehouse all along, as they’d been unable to sell them.

“We made an appointment with them,” says Tsoukalis, ” in order to ‘buy’ [the stolen relics], but we [actually] planned to arrest them; after that, they were sentenced to life imprisonment.”

The way it all unraveled would no doubt remind one of a scene from a movie.

One night we made an appointment with the perpetrators in Ilioupoli,” continued Tsoukalis, adding that “the commander of National Information Service at the time, Babis Stavrakakis, did not allow me to go alone but told me that if something happened to me, he wouldn’t be able to forgive himself.”

“I replied that I had to go alone because if the perpetrators realized there was an escort, the whole thing would be fall to pieces,” says Tsoukalis who had to convince perpetrators that there would be a reward if the looted antiquities were handed over.

Tsoukalis was taken to a secluded place on Mt. Imittos while the commander of EYP  awaited his phone call. Thankfully, things worked out as planned, and the perpetrators were arrested.

As a result of and thanks to George Tsoukalis and his unwavering courage, the whole wing of the Archaeological Museum of Corinth is comprised of these antiquities.

Tsoukalis further reveals that “the relics had been sent to the United States as ‘stationery’ in order to enable their transport, and while there is no law on antiquities in the US, the law on theft did apply and US authorities diligently assisted in the return of the relics doing all they could and showing great respect to the cultural heritage of Greece through their heartfelt cooperation.”

George Tsoukalis pauses once again and reveals with delight that “the greatest satisfaction for [him] was when [he] visited the museum many years later while returning from an antiquities case in Sparta; in standing in line for his ticket to the Archaeological Museum of Corinth, the person in charge stated that ‘it [was] inappropriate for [him] to [pay] to see the relics that were in the museum thanks to Tsoukalis.'”

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Some of the looted antiquities. Credit: Ministry of Culture

Greek Reporter asked Tsoukalis how he feels about the risks inherent in getting involved with investigations of antiquities theft and what his relationship with the Hellenic police is.

He is adamant that “there is always danger, but it is an adrenaline rush, and if you do not experience it, you  cannot understand it, and if I stop doing this today,” he maintains, “I’ll be depressed; so you live with it, and in terms of the police, I have a very good relationship with them – I would say a two-way relationship of appreciation and respect.”

“At first, it was especially difficult to convince myself that I was not claiming anything more than what I was entitled to,” says Tsoukalis, ” but I appreciate [the Greek police] deeply, and I have also created a monument for fallen officers; my cooperation with the Greek police has always been flawless.”

Tsoukalis does recognize, however, that “unfortunately, in some cases, the police do not… have the means to do the job properly; that is, they cannot pay informants, carry out long-term missions, and the like…and this is where private investigators can help.”

George Tsoukalis’ message to the Greek people

Tsoukalis acknowledges that “as Greeks, we must first rid ourselves of certain entangle-ments and learn to admire because we envy but do not admire, and this is what an Italian police chief once told me in a conversation – that we are such a special people, but we have this disadvantage.”

He goes on to say that “the farmer who finds a relic and sells it but does not deliver it where it should be has, on the one hand, a sort of ignorance but, on the other hand, does not have the proper education to appreciate it; yet, the smuggler who has all this and sells it is a national bidder.”

“The best form of resistance,” says Tsoukalis “is to inform young children about our cultural heritage and that this heritage is certainly just as important as protecting our borders!”

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Tsoukalis against… Lord Elgin

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