USD 1 Billion Worth of Archaeological Artifacts Smuggled Out of Bulgaria Annually, Archaeologist Claims

Treasure hunting and trafficking of antiques contribute to the destruction of thousands of archaeological monuments in Bulgaria on a daily basis. Photo: Yantra Dnes

Treasure hunting and trafficking of antiques contribute to the destruction of thousands of archaeological monuments in Bulgaria on a daily basis. Photo: Yantra Dnes

The archaeological artifacts extracted and exported from Bulgaria through treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques are worth about USD 1 billion annually, according to Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the Sofia-based National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, part of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

Dochev, an archaeologist and numismatist with 39 years of experience, is one of the experts helping the Bulgarian police, Prosecutor’s Office, and courts to prosecute and try cases of treasure hunting and trafficking of antiques.

“It would be hard to uproot treasure hunting in Bulgaria but it must at least be restrained. This mania for searching for treasures has entered the Bulgarians’ DNA, just as it has with the Egyptians and the Turks, for example. What’s worrying is that people participating in various central and local government institutions, and even representatives of the security business are dealing with treasure hunting," Dochev states in an interview for Veliko Tarnovo newspaper Yantra Dnes.

Dochev’s estimate of the USD 1 billion annual turnover of the archaeological contraband out of Bulgaria is even higher than the estimate of BGN 500 million (app. EUR 250 million) made in November 2014 by the Forum Association, a NGO.

“The treasure daemon enters very easily into a man’s mind and soul. What’s interesting is that there are no women who are treasure hunters. In my long experiences, I haven’t heard of such a precedent. Apparently, the male DNA is more susceptible to this evil," says the archaeologist.

He reiterates that the treasure hunting raids against numerous archaeological sites are increasing because a lot of people have started using this activity to make a living.

In his words, the treasure hunting mafia in Bulgaria has a strict hierarchy, with lowest-ranking, the diggers, receiving assignments based on thorough research from above. If a certain find has not been ordered by a specific buyer, the “extra" archaeological material ends up in auction houses in Western Europe, the USA, Canada, or even Australia.

Dochev emphasizes that tens of thousands of ancient artifacts are trafficked abroad every year, including ancient statuettes, gold and silver adornments, and especially ancient and medieval coins.

“Bulgaria is ranked first in the EU in terms of the illegal exports of cultural heritage artifacts. In Europe, it ranks second or third, Albania and/or Macedonia are ahead of us even though the quantities they export are smaller than Bulgaria’s. Unfortunately, thanks to recent developments in global politics, a lot [of archaeological contraband] gets exported from Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey. The trafficking to Europe goes through Turkey and Bulgaria," states the archaeologist.

Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. Photo: Yantra Dnes

Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology in Sofia. Photo: Yantra Dnes

He notes that for more than 10 years now Bulgaria has had a special police unit designed to combat the trafficking of archaeological artifacts, which works in cooperation with archaeologists, historians, and laboratory experts. Their joint efforts have led to the returning to Bulgaria of a large number of artifacts smuggled to the USA, Canada, and Italy.

In one of the cases, customs officers caught a US-bound shipment of about 87,000 ancient and medieval coins at the Kalotina crossing on the Bulgarian-Serbian border weighing a total of 200 kg.

In other cases, a contraband shipment of 21,000 coins and artifacts was returned to Bulgaria from Canada, with Dochev and the other Bulgarian experts managing to give “long-distance" evidence that the artifacts originated in Bulgaria; two large shipments were likewise returned from Italy.

The total worth of the contraband shipment send back from the Canadian authorities was estimated at USD 1 million but its market value is believed to have been much higher. It contained coins, adornments, metal and glass items from the periods of Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Bulgarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire.

The Bulgarian law enforcement institutions and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs worked on the case for over a year.

The archaeologist notes that one of the ways to control and limit organized crime in treasure hunting and trafficking of antiques goes through the registration of the existing private collections with the authorities. A controversial amendment to this end was made to Bulgaria’s Cultural Heritage Act back in 2009.

Unfortunately, out of a total of 220 members of the Bulgarian Numismatic Society, only about 60 are said to have registered collections.

“That’s because many of the Bulgarian collectors have seen trouble over the years, and the Ministry of Culture hasn’t carried out a proper information campaign to assuage their fears," Dochev says.

Background Infonotes:

Treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques have been rampant in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communism regime in 1989 (and allegedly before that). Estimates vary but some consider this the second most profitable activity for the Bulgarian mafia after drug trafficking.

An estimate made in November 2014 by the Forum Association, a NGO, suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from about 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are impoverished low-level diggers.

According to an estimate by Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the Sofia-based National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, up to USD 1 billion worth of archaeological artifacts might be smuggled out of Bulgaria annually.

According to the estimate of another archaeologist from the Institute, Assoc. Prof. Sergey Torbatov, there might be as many as 500,000 people dealing with treasure hunting in Bulgaria.

One of the most compelling reports in international media on Bulgaria’s treasure hunting plight is the 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past" (in whose making a member of the ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com participated). Focusing on the fate of the Ancient Roman colony Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria, the film makes it clear that treasure hunting destruction happens all over the country on a daily basis.