Ancient Etruscan sarcophagus
Ancient Etruscan sarcophagus found in a Geneva storage unitMinistère public genevois

Hundreds of priceless antiquities including fragments of fresco from Pompeii as well as terracotta pots, decorated vases, busts and bas-reliefs were found in a Geneva storage unit. Many of the items are believed to have been looted from archaeological sites by tomb raiders. Italian specialist art theft police discovered 45 crates of 'priceless' ancient treasures which had been languishing there for 15 years.

The haul included classical sculptures, Roman frescos, and sarcophagi, as well thousands of fragments of an entire wall of an Etruscan temple. Items also include two life-size Etruscan sarcophagi, one depicting an elderly man and the other a young woman, both reclining on their sides. They are among the very few examples of their kind. Prosecutors in Geneva said they were "exceptional pieces (which were taken from) clandestine excavations."

They are believed to have been looted from tombs in what remains of the ancient Etruscan city of Tarquinia, in the hills north of Rome. The antiquities have been returned to Rome and are to be unveiled at a press conference later this week.

The antiquities were being kept the name of an offshore company, but are alleged to belong to London art dealer Robin Symes, according to police. The dealer was declared bankrupt in 2003, and in 2005, he was imprisoned for contempt of court for seven months.

Ancient terracotta pot
Ancient terracotta pot seized by Italian art theft policeMinistère public genevois

Journalist Peter Watson's book The Medici Conspiracy: The Illicit Journey of Looted Antiquities from Italy's Tomb Raiders to the World's Greatest Museums, alleges that Symes was an unscrupulous dealer who sold them on to art institutions including the Getty Museum.

Some of artefacts were allegedly already on a blacklist and photographs of them were found among the possession of an Italian policeman, found dead in suspicious circumstances in 1995 while under investigation for art trafficking.

A statement by the Geneva prosecutors' office said: "45 crates of exceptional pieces originating from illegal excavations have been returned to Italy with the cooperation of Geneva prosecutors.

"The pieces were brought there from the United Kingdom by a once prominent English art dealer, whose name has surfaced in several art trafficking cases.

"An Italian expert concluded that the remains came from illegal excavations at an ancient Etruscan necropolis in the Umbria/ Lazio area.

"Police have established direct links between certain objects and tomb robbers." A spokesman from the Rome Carabinieri's specialist artistic heritage team, who track down tomb raiders and smugglers, confirmed the operation in Geneva took place last week.