11,000 Coins, Archaeological Artifacts Seized on Bulgaria’s Border in Attempted Smuggling from Turkey into EU

The more than 11,000 coins and artifacts captured from a smuggler at the Bulgarian – Turkish border. Photo: Bulgaria’s Customs Agency

Over 11,000 ancient coins as well as dozens of archaeological artifacts have been seized by customs officers at the Lesovo Crossing Point on Bulgaria’s border with Turkey in a car entering Bulgaria and the EU during a smuggling attempt.

The archaeological artifacts include 11,037 coins, 87 figurines, 35 rings, and 19 stone artifacts, Bulgaria’s Customs Agency has announced.

Their authenticity has not been verified yet, and it is known that forged archaeological artifacts and coins are also trafficked through Bulgaria’s borders.

The photos and video released by the Customs Agency in Sofia show that seized items include artifacts such as crosses and clay lamps.

The ancient coins and the other artifacts have been discovered by officers at the Lesovo Border Crossing Point in a car with license plates from Belgium driven by a citizen of Turkey.

In the smuggling attempt, the archaeological artifacts were hidden in niches found in the trunk and underneath the car’s fenders. The antiques smuggling at the Bulgarian – Turkish border was attempted in the afternoon of May 25, 2018 (Friday).

The smuggling case is being investigated under the auspices of the District Prosecutor’s Office in the city of Yambol in Southeast Bulgaria, the Customs Agency has announced.

It has provided no further details about the smuggling attempt, the finds, or their potential countries of origin. They may have originated in Turkey or in other countries from Asia Minor and the Middle East such as Iraq or Syria.

The seized archaeological artifacts include items such as crosses and clay lamps. Photo: Bulgaria’s Customs Agency

In a smuggling case which grabbed international attention and made global media headlines back in 2015, Ancient Roman artifacts smuggled into Bulgaria from the Middle East via Turkey were seized from a Turkish citizen in the city of Shumen.

The artifacts included an alleged Mesopotamian relief slab from Ancient Sumer whose authenticity has not been verified.

Bulgaria is known to be part of the route for trafficking of archaeological artifacts from the Middle East into Europe, but is also itself a major source of looted antiques.

Treasure hunting targetting archaeological sites is a rampant crime in Bulgaria and takes its toll on the country’s enormous cultural and historical heritage on a daily basis. (Learn more in the Background Infonotes below!)

In November 2017, Bulgaria’s police seized a medieval gold treasure from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (13th-14th century) after it was found by accident in the trunk of a jeep owned by treasure hunters.

One of Bulgaria’s countless archaeological sites that have been destroyed with bulldozers by ruthless modern-day looters is the huge Ancient Roman city of Ratiaria on the Danube, in the country’s Northwest.

Note: When considering this and other reports based on formal announcements by the Bulgarian authorities, keep in mind that Bulgarian cultural heritage preservation activists often vehemently criticize the country’s institutions for only going after low level treasure hunters and antique traffickers, and, deliberately or not, failing to go after the “big fish".

Photo: TV grab from video released by Photo: Bulgaria’s Customs Agency

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.

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