The icons were seized from thieves back in the late 1990s, and the Burgas museum has managed to restore most of them only thanks to public donations, for lack of funds. Photo: Radio Burgas
The Regional Museum of History in Bulgaria’s Burgas and the local bureau of the Bulgarian National Radio have launched a campaign to raise money for the restoration of a total of 7 large “royal" icons which were recovered from thieves back in the 1990s.
The icons, each one of which is more than 100 years old, have been kept at the history museum in the Black Sea city of Burgas since 1998.
They are part of a set of a total of 19 icons that the Bulgarian police rescued from thieves in the late 1990s, with 12 of the icons already fully or partially restored thanks to the museum’s successful Christmas fundraising campaigns over the previous four years, Radio Burgas reports.
All of the icons in question were stolen by thieves from churches and monasteries in Southeast Bulgaria, although for the time being the police and museum experts have been unable to identify precisely the origin of all of them.
The 2019 campaign is the fifth edition of the donation campaign entitled “Save an Icon" designed to help rescue “these valuable treasures of our faith" (i.e. Bulgarian Orthodox Christianity).
“Part of the icons were given to the museum in 1995, and another part in 1998," says Ivanka Deleva, chief curator of the history department at the Burgas Regional Museum of History.
“The icons were stolen from different churches, and our initial hypothesis that they are from the area of Karnobat has not been confirmed by our field work. We have now turned to the areas of Zimnitsa, Sliven, and Yambol," she explains.
“We call them ‘rescued’ items, and we would like to restore them so they can regain their former shining," the curator states.
In her words, the restoration of each one of the large icons costs about BGN 1,000 – 2,000 (app. EUR 500 – 1,000).
The icons’ condition has deteriorated even in the museum since they have never been conserved and restored.
“When we raise the needed money [for one icon], together with the restorer we choose [for restoration] the one that is in the direst need of revamping," Deleva says.
So far, a total of 8 of the 19 icons rescued icons in question have been restored, 2 are being restored, and two are about to be restored as the needed money has already been raised.
“We are left with the 7 largest icons which also require the largest sums of money. We are obliged to preserve this treasure for the future generations," says Milen Nikolov, Director of the Burgas Regional Museum of History.
“These wonderful works of Christianity need to be restored and exhibited in our icon hall. We hope the public will answer our call for donations," he adds.
The contact information provided by the Burgas Regional Museum of History for its fundraising campaigns for the rescued icons is:
Bulgaria 8000, Burgas, 31 Lermontov Street, Regional Museum of History, +359 56 841 815, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Many of the police officers who participated in the rescue of the icons in question back in the 1990s are now retired but still remember that most of the icons were hidden in a barn in Dolno Ezerovo, a quarter in the city of Burgas, Tsvetelina Randeva, spokesperson of the Burgas police, has told BNR.
“The police officers who took part in their rescue told us they had been impressed by the size of the icons and the talent of the iconographers (icon painters) who created them. [In the barn], the icons were kept in low temperatures and high humidity, and this damaged their surface. Even back then it was evident that they were in need of restoration," Randeva explains.
“These are extremely valuable icons which must be rescued. They were rescued once by the police, and now, the second time, they ought to be rescued by the public through the donation campaign," she adds.
In her words, more than 20 years ago, there was a boom of theft from churches and monasteries in Southeast Bulgaria, but most of all in the areas of the Strandzha Mountain and the Black Sea town of Pomorie. Nowadays such thefts in the region are rare, and usually target donation boxes in the temples, rather than the icons.
One the rescued icons which needs restoration at the Burgas Museum of History is this badly damaged large icon of St. Menas (St. Mina). Photos: Radio Burgas
Randeva has even told the story of an icon, the so called icon of the “Black Mother of God" (Virgin Mary), which was stolen in the Black Sea resort of Nessebar, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its medieval icons, back in the 1990s, and was believed to have led to a curse.
“After the theft of the icon by teenagers, many young people [in Nessebar] started dying in strange circumstances. That was why Nessebar residents turned for help to Vanga (Bulgarian clairvoyant Baba Vanga – Vangeliya Gushterova who passed away in 1996 – editor’s note). She told them that they were being punished by the Mother of God (Virgin Mary), and in order to regain her mercy, they needed to sprinkle hundreds of kilograms of sugar on Nessebar’s streets. Ever since this punishment superstition has descended like a halo on Nessebar’s churches, and there have been no thefts from them," the spokesperson of the regional police says.
The theft of archaeological, historical, and cultural artifacts from museums, churches, and other institutions is part of the wider area of large-scale criminal activity in Bulgaria associated with treasure hunting and the theft and illegal trafficking of antiques.
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.