It used to be so easy for the "tombaroli," Italy's tomb raiders. Pietro Casasanta had no Indiana Jones-type escapes from angry natives or...

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ANGUILLARA SABAZIA, Italy — It used to be so easy for the “tombaroli,” Italy’s tomb raiders.

Pietro Casasanta had no Indiana Jones-type escapes from angry natives or booby-trapped temples. He worked undisturbed in daylight with a bulldozer, posing as a construction worker to become one of Italy’s most successful plunderers of archaeological treasures.

When he wasn’t in prison, the convicted looter operated for decades in this countryside outside Rome, benefiting from what he says was lax surveillance that allowed him to dig into ancient Roman villas and unearth statues, pottery and other artifacts which he then sold for millions of dollars on the illegal antiquities market.

“Nobody cared, and there was so much money going around,” he recalled. “I always worked during the day, with the same hours as construction crews, because at night it was easier to get noticed and to make mistakes.”

But the tombaroli are dwindling.

Police and prosecutors believe they are beginning to see results from their efforts to combat the traffic of stolen or illegally excavated antiquities which they say made their way to the world’s top museums and collectors.

Gen. Giovanni Nistri, who heads the art squad with the Carabinieri, Italy’s paramilitary police, said that in 2006 his unit discovered fewer than 40 illegal digs. In the late 1990s, more than 1,000 a year could be found.

Increased monitoring of archaeological sites has landed such diggers as Casasanta in jail. International probes have led to the seizure of treasure-filled warehouses in Switzerland. And Italy has been pressuring some U.S. museums to return artifacts.

It has put the former curator of Los Angeles’ J. Paul Getty Museum, Marion True, and art dealer Robert Hecht, on trial in Rome over allegations of knowingly receiving dozens of archaeological treasures that were smuggled out despite laws making all antiquities found in Italy state property. The two Americans deny wrongdoing.

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts have agreed to return antiquities — including vases, statues and silver artifacts from Greek, Roman and Etruscan times — in exchange for long-term loans of other treasures. Negotiations between Italy and the Getty have so far failed to yield a deal.

Italy’s efforts have scared museums and the international art market into following stricter guidelines for acquisitions, Nistri said.

The crackdown has been felt on the legal art market, with buyers concentrating more on objects coming from private collections or other legitimate sources, said Mieke Zilverberg, chairwoman of the International Association of Dealers of Ancient Art, based in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

“Prices will never go down now,” she said. “It already was a quietly up-going market, and now with the hassle the Italians made, everybody is focused on buying good things with a legitimate provenance, which means prices go up.”

Zilverberg said dealers and museums are learning their lesson, but noted that the blame for the looting rests also with authorities who didn’t monitor what was happening in their own archaeological backyards.

When Casasanta started out in the 1950s, he would sell his finds at tiny stalls that openly dealt in antiquities on the streets of Rome. Too poor to get an education, he used part of his earnings to buy secondhand books about archaeology, fueling his growing passion.

He developed a keen eye for promising sites — sometimes using a friend’s glider to spot them from above, but more often by paying attention to details on the ground.

Although the word “tombaroli” comes from “tomba,” Italian for tomb, it is used to describe all antiquities looters. Casasanta’s targets were usually Roman villas, on which he worked with a bulldozer and a couple of helpers. At such sites he uncovered statues of emperors and gods, as well as what he considers his greatest find — a 4th-century-B.C. ivory mask representing the Greek divinity Apollo.

He unearthed the statue in 1994 and sold it to a Germany-based dealer, although Casasanta maintains he was cheated and received less than a tenth of the $10 million agreed upon. In revenge, he reported the dealer to authorities and Italian police recovered the mask in London in 2003.

In the highest-profile case, he was caught in 1992 when one of his workers turned him in following the stunning discovery of the Capitoline Triad, a statue depicting Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.

Casasanta made millions on the illegal market, although he won’t say exactly how much, but lost most of his fortune to gambling and police seizures. The former raider said he has spent about nine years in jail and on probation.

Now 69 and ailing, Casasanta insists he only dug up treasures in areas that were threatened by development projects that would have destroyed the artifacts.

But Paolo Ferri, the prosecutor in the True case, said the “tombaroli” are a threat to Italy’s cultural heritage not only because their finds disappear abroad, but also because their digging methods are often brutal and damaging.

“Casasanta feels like a hero, and it’s true that he has made exceptional discoveries,” he said. “But the tombaroli dig in search of a specific object, the most important one. They take that one and destroy the rest.”