* Ancient gold, silver coins taken from bank vault
* Heist is likely largest of its type during revolt
By Brian Rohan
BENGHAZI, Libya, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Pieces from a huge collection of priceless ancient coins, jewellery and statuettes, looted from a bank vault in eastern Libya in the chaos of the rebellion against Muammar Gaddafi, have appeared in the local souk and are being taken abroad.
The cache of some 8,000 pieces was taken by thieves who chiselled into a concrete bank vault in Benghazi in the early days of revolutionary tumult after fire spread from an adjacent headquarters of the feared secret police.
Residents of the seaside neighbourhood say the bank was invaded by looters in February, when Benghazi rose up against Gaddafi’s rule and triggered a revolt that spread nationwide.
Crowds stormed official buildings to free political prisoners, and some residents said a prison break nearby could have allowed hardened criminals to set upon the bank.
Ash and broken glass litter the Ottoman atrium of the building, the main branch of Libya’s commercial bank. Its underground vaults remain open in eerie darkness, some holding neatly stacked records of transactions with Western financial houses.
“It’s a disaster,” said Yussuf ben Nasr, director of antiquities for the city, built on a site originally named Euesperides when founded by ancient Greeks in the 6th century B.C.
A Reuters reporter found bronze coins stored in the back room of a jewellery shop in Benghazi’s souk. The seller said the artefacts were “a secret.” Asked about the value of the coins the dealer shrugged and said they were two millennia old.
When Reuters showed ben Nasr photographs of the coins on sale in the souk, he said they were probably part of the collection.
“These are priceless national treasures, pieces of our history that have been lost,” ben Nasr said from his office, which he has converted into a safe house for antiques just a short walk from the gutted bank.
The stolen cache included rarer gold and silver coins embossed with Islamic calligraphy and verses of the Muslim holy book, the Koran.
The land that is Libya has been ruled by successive Mediterranean empires over the centuries, and is home to spectacular Greek and Roman ruins that have been left largely unspoiled by modernity, far off the tourist track.
Experts say most Libyan antiquities survived the nine-month uprising unscathed, thanks to a mixture of luck and meticulous work by men like ben Nasr, who has spent most of his time since February securing the north African country’s history in crates like those now filling his office — much of it at his own expense.
The collection in the Benghazi bank, though, did not have the same luck.
“This is the biggest theft I am aware of,” said Paul Bennett, a British archaeologist who specialises in Libyan antiquities. “The indications are that some of the finds are making their way into the souk.”
Despite a police hunt involving the international police agency Interpol, part of the Benghazi cache has already started to leave the country, ben Nasr said.
Statues from the vault have surfaced in neighbouring Egypt, and some of the 500 gold coins recently seen there may have been part of the lost trove.
“There’s not much we can do except ask institutions around the world to help us acquire Libyan antiquities if they turn up, so they can be returned,” he said, adding that Libyans living in Egypt had collected money to purchase a statuette of the love god Cupid found in a souk in Alexandria.
The collection stolen in Benghazi had already changed hands several times in the 20th century, much of it having been seized by officials from fascist Italy during World War Two.
Taken as booty from territory that dictator Benito Mussolini considered part of his “New Roman Empire”, the artefacts were displayed in a colonial exhibition in Italy in 1940 before being returned to independent Libya in the 1960s.
Deep beneath the bank, a large vault in a trashed office remains shut, a chisel jammed between steel and centuries-old masonry testifying to failed attempts to pry it open.
But a floor above, a manhole-sized opening shows how thieves finally broke through the reinforced concrete ceiling - work that required either a jackhammer or days of toil by hand.
“Libya has had big problems with theft in the past before, and under Gaddafi many items mysteriously ended up in Switzerland,” ben Nasr said. “Luckily we’ve had help from organisations there, who purchased them for us.”
With museums in disrepair after years of neglect, and archaeological sites across the country largely unsecured, ben Nasr has enlisted the police and even the Libyan Boy Scouts to track down missing antiquities, including recently discovered mummies from pillaged tombs in the south.
“We continue to search sites across the country, taking inventories of what is missing, and telling schoolchildren and the Boy Scouts about the missing treasure,” he said. “For now, archaeology here has become detective work.” (Editing by Christian Lowe; and Tim Pearce)