AREZZO, Italy - Agence France-Presse
A picture taken on May 11, 2012 shows a goldsmih controlling the fire during the melting of gold to produce a gold ingot, at Italpreziosi gold refinery company, in Arezzo. AFP photo
Italy's traditional goldsmiths are up in arms over a boom in the poorly regulated cash-for-gold sector that is making billions for the mafia as hard-up Italians rush to sell off their bling.
Cash-for-gold shops have filled Italy's streets in recent months, with blanket television adverts urging Italians to sell off their medallions and jewels for quick cash.
Much of the gold eventually makes its way across the Alps to Switzerland -- whether legally or smuggled across the border -- making gold Italy's fastest growing export and Switzerland an increasingly prominent market for Italy.
Custom seizures of gold are up 50 percent, officials say, with one of the latest cases a father and daughter arrested trying to squirrel out 50 kilos (110 pounds) of the metal worth over two million euros in unmarked ingots.
"It's a booming sector for criminal organisations. Smuggled gold ends up all over the world, in countries where it is swapped for arms, drugs, you name it," said Ranieri Razzante, head of AIRA, an anti-money laundering watchdog.
Legal gold sales to Switzerland totalled 120 tonnes last year -- up from 73 tonnes in 2010 and 64 tonnes in 2009, with foundries built on the border having to work flat out to meet demand and almost daily truckloads crossing over.
According to the gold workers' guild (ANOPO), "almost all the gold exported comes from cash-for-golds" bringing in billions for organised crime.
"Italy's become a veritable gold mine," said Ivana Ciabatti, gold and silversmith president at the national business association Confindustria, who is based in the central town of Arezzo, the gold production capital of Italy.
"It's fundamental to fight the criminal elements in the sector," she said.
The booming over-the-counter industry is worth at least 14 billion euros ($17.6 billion), according to ANOPO, which is campaigning for changes to the law to stop mafia infiltration of their sector.
Thanks to a legal loop-hole, the shops can dodge Value Added Tax (VAT) because they are considered part of the "scrapping" business.Time to clean up the gold sector
Out of an estimated 28,000 cash-for-gold stores in Italy, only a few hundred have registered with the Bank of Italy and professional associations say that some 80 percent of the gold sold there ultimately ends up in Switzerland.
Italy historically has some of the highest rates of gold jewellery ownership in the world because of cultural traditions like gifts of gold chains but also because ownership of gold bullion was illegal until a decade ago.
"Jewellery was the only form of gold investment allowed and Italian families still own considerable quantities," said Alessandra Pilloni, an analyst from Bullion Vault, an online London-based gold trader.
"Cash-strapped families can now sell unwanted jewels much more easily than before and last summer was a turning point as the crisis deepened," she said.
The price of gold has meanwhile shot up from some $300 dollars (244 euros) an ounce in 2002 to around $1,600 today, triggering the current boom in sales.
"Criminal organisations have at least 50 percent of the cash-for-gold shops in their grip. They use fake figureheads to avoid leaving a trace and run illegal foundries in the backstreets of cities like Naples," said Razzante.
In March, Interior Minister Anna Maria Cancellieri said the sector had generated "a black market... which necessitates the constant monitoring above all in criminal circles linked to usury, fencing and money laundering." In an attempt to rein in the unruly sector, member of parliament Donella Mattesini, from Italy's Democratic Party, presented a draft law last month which would enforce stricter controls -- and fines -- on cash-for-gold shops.
"We urgently need a law to regulate the sector," said Mattesini, who is also the deputy mayor in Arezzo.
"We need to up controls on back-street foundries and gold shops. It's time to clean up the whole gold sector."