Ancient vessels, coins, and a wide range of other artifacts have been captured by the Bulgarian police as they had been packaged and about to be shipped to London. Photo: Interior Ministry
The Bulgarian and the British police have arrested a total of 9 people for running a trafficking channel for the illegal exports of antiques and archaeological artifacts plundered by treasure hunters in Bulgaria.
The traffickers of antiques from Bulgaria to London and other destination throughout Western Europe were arrested on October 25, 2019, Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry has announced.
Eight suspects have been arrested in Bulgaria, and one person – in the UK, while the Bulgarian police have confiscated a total of more than 4,600 antiques and archaeological artifacts from various historical periods, which had been packaged for shipment to London.
The police operation has been carried out in the districts of Pleven, Lovech, Vratsa, and Montana in Northwest Bulgaria, and the district of Blagoevgrad in Southwest Bulgaria by the “Trafficking of Cultural Artifacts" department of the Main Directorate for Fighting Organized Crime (GDBOP) of the Bulgarian police. The police officers raided a total of 12 locations and 5 vehicles.
“The operation has exposed and documented the criminal activity of Bulgarian citizens directed against cultural heritage, connected with illegal searching, acquisition, keeping, trading, and trafficking of cultural items, including archaeological artifacts," Bulgaria’s Interior Ministry says.
“The participants [in the trafficking ring] are part of an international channel for the trafficking of cultural artifacts of illegal origin acquired through treasure hunting excavations on Bulgaria’s territory," the institution adds.
It notes that the looted archaeological artifacts were used for directly supplying “private collections", and for feeding export material to other dealers of cultural artifacts for exports abroad.
The artifacts seized from the treasure hunters and smugglers include about 3,800 ancient coins; over 600 other artifacts such as statuettes, fibulas, horse harness appliques, and even parts from chariots; a total of 121 ancient rings, earrings, and other adornments; 52 tips and arrows; 32 pottery and glass vessels; 5 architectural fragments such as friezes; and 3 amphorae.
The shattered trafficking ring had been operating out of five districts throughout Western Bulgaria. Photos: Interior Ministry
Along with the artifacts, the Bulgarian police have also seized a total of BGN 40,000 (app. EUR 20,000) and EUR 10,000 in cash as well as a large number of documents testifying to sales at auction houses in Western Europe and lists enumerating the specific artifacts that had been sold, their price and number.
Most of the 4,600 confiscated coins and other artifacts have been seized at a firm office where three person have been arrested while striking a deal. The artifacts had been apportioned and packaged in parcels for shipping to the British capital London.
In that particular office, the police have found papers from the sale of the artifacts looted by Bulgarian treasure hunters in different auction houses in London as well as hand-written lists and photos of the sold items.
The investigators have found that the traffickers had been keeping the archaeological artifacts in a rented storage facility, which, however, could not be used any longer for an unspecified reason, so they had to move them temporarily to the garage of the said office.
“Inside the garage, [the police officers] have found and seized extremely rare and valuable artifacts of historical, cultural, and financial value – various pottery vessels, amphorae, glass vessels, friezes, and part of the confiscated coins," the Bulgarian Interior Ministry says.
The police have seized papers documenting the sales of plundered artifacts from around Bulgaria at auction houses in London and other cities in Western Europe. Photos: Interior Ministry
Bulgaria has a very massive criminal industry of treasure hunting and antiques trafficking, with an estimated annual turnover of up to EUR 1 billion.
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 which Ivan Dikov served as a fixer). 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.