In August 2004, Christos Tsirogiannis got a message that would change his life. Would he be interested in accompanying the Athens police on a raid? It might not seem like a job for an archaeologist, but police told him they might need his expertise once they got there. He agreed, got in an unmarked SUV, and headed with police to a monastery outside the city.
It turned out that monks had been hiding hundreds of improperly registered antiquities—but the most memorable part of the night came when Tsirogiannis, who grew up amid ancient treasures in the historic region of Thrace, in northeastern Greece, began chatting with the police officers after the arrests had been made. They told him they regularly conducted antiquities raids, but until that night, they’d never found an archaeologist willing to accompany them.
Tsirogiannis’ career as a forensic archaeologist—an archaeologist who builds criminal cases against smugglers, looters, dealers and institutions that purchase or hold illegal antiquities—began that night.
Since then, the 44-year-old archaeologist says he’s identified over 1,100 illicit antiquities in 13 years on the job. By carefully tracking and documenting the histories of ancient artifacts, he sheds light on how even the most respected institutions can trade in illegal art. Take the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where an ancient vase was seized in 2017 by the New York District Attorney’s office on suspicion it had been stolen. Tsirogiannis built that case—and one over a vase on sale in a Manhattan art gallery that had been stolen and sold to the gallery by a notorious trafficker. And one over an ancient drinking cup purchased by the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, fragments of which came from a shady antiquities dealer who sold artifacts from illegal digs.
It’s not easy: Each case can involve thousands of documents and hundreds of hours of work. Under a 1970 United Nations treaty signed by 131 states, antiquities dealers must keep…