Italian police yesterday seized more than 2,000 ancient artefacts in a nationwide sweep aimed at dismantling a criminal gang that was operating throughout southern Italy and dealing in stolen archaeolo­gical treasures.

During their operation, police discovered a house that had been turned into a private museum packed with some 550 ancient finds, a police statement said. Three people were arrested.

The investigation was launched after part of a fresco was stolen from the House of Neptune in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, near Naples.

Italian media reported the loss of part of a fresco of Apollo and Artemis in Pompeii last March. The police did not say if they had recovered the art work, which was hacked out of a wall.

Yesterday’s operation was coordinated by anti-mafia officials in Naples and involved some 142 police searches in more than 20 Italian cities and towns.

Amongst the items recovered were decorated vases, coins and fragments of ancient buildings. Police also seized metal detectors and items they said had been used for illegal digs.