Vast Artifact Collection Seized from Exiled Oligarch to Be Appraised by German, Italian Experts, Bulgaria's Prosecution Says

Vast Artifact Collection Seized from Exiled Oligarch to Be Appraised by German, Italian Experts, Bulgaria’s Prosecution Says

Artifacts from Vasil Bozhkov’s private collection seized by the police are seen here as they are being stored at the National Museum of History in Sofia. The collection of nearly 7,000 Antiquity artifacts is estimated to be worth up to EUR 200 million. Photo: Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office

The very large and rich collection counting thousands of Antiquity archaeological artifacts, many of them gold and silver Ancient Thracian vessels, which has been seized from Bulgarian businessman Vasil Bozhkov, oftentimes described in media as an oligarch, is intact and to be appraised by foreign experts from Germany, Italy, or other EU countries, Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office has announced in a statement.

The latest statement from the Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office on Vasil Bozhkov’s vast archaeological collection has a long prehistory from a still developing political and legal saga.

Vasil Bozhkov, aka “The Skull", formerly the richest Bulgarian with a wealth estimated at one point at some EUR 1.5 billion or USD 2 billion, is presently in exile in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (OAE).Boy

He is presently being wanted by the Bulgarian authorities on a total of 19 charges ranging from complicity in murders and running an organized crime ring to money laundering and rape.

Bozhkov himself claims that the charges against him are motivated by large-scale top-level corruption after he at one point refused to continue paying massive bribes to the government. He has alluded that he has been squeezed out by other oligarchy figures.

Artifacts from Vasil Bozhkov’s private collection seized by the police are seen here as they are being stored at the National Museum of History in Sofia. The collection of nearly 7,000 Antiquity artifacts is estimated to be worth up to EUR 200 million. Photo: Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office

Artifacts from Vasil Bozhkov’s private collection seized by the police are seen here as they are being stored at the National Museum of History in Sofia. The collection of nearly 7,000 Antiquity artifacts is estimated to be worth up to EUR 200 million. Photo: Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office

Artifacts from Vasil Bozhkov’s private collection seized by the police are seen here as they are being stored at the National Museum of History in Sofia. The collection of nearly 7,000 Antiquity artifacts is estimated to be worth up to EUR 200 million. Photo: Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office

Artifacts from Vasil Bozhkov’s private collection seized by the police are seen here as they are being stored at the National Museum of History in Sofia. The collection of nearly 7,000 Antiquity artifacts is estimated to be worth up to EUR 200 million. Photo: Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office

Bozhkov has been releasing compromising information about Bulgarian government figures via social media, and has stated that his life would be in danger, should return or be forced to return to Bulgaria.

A graduate of Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski" with a degree in mathematics, in one of the US diplomatic cables leaked on WikiLeaks in 2010, from the US Embassy in Sofia to the State Department, Bozhkov is described as “Bulgaria’s most infamous gangster". Some of the other similar US diplomatic cables contain information with “murky” connotations about Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (presently in his third term), with whom Bozhkov is presently in an open conflict.

Bozhkov fled to Dubai in January 2020. Subsequently, in May 2020, he alleged that in less than 3 years, between 2017 and 2019, he had paid BGN 60 million (app. EUR 30 million) in direct bribes with vast stashes of cash to Bulgaria’s then Finance Minister Vladislav Goranov and Prime Minister Boyko Borisov.

In June, he alleged that he had paid 20% from the turnover of his gambling and lottery companies in government bribes. Borisov himself retorted that Bozhkov should come back to Bulgaria, and pay BGN 700 million (app. EUR 350 million) in evaded taxes since 2013.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov (left) and businessman Vasil Bozhkov (right), back then in his capacity as owner of the Levski Sofia Football Club, are seen at a meeting here in June 2019, seven months before the latter fled to Dubai. Photo: TV grab from footage from the Bulgarian Council of Ministers

Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and businessman Vasil Bozhkov, back then in his capacity as owner of the Levski Sofia Football Club, are seen at a meeting here in June 2019, seven months before the latter fled to Dubai. Photo: TV grab from footage from the Bulgarian Council of Ministers

In addition to being a large-scale businessman, said to fit the definition of a post-communist era oligarch, with interests in areas such as gambling and road infrastructure, Bozhkov has been a well-known collector of archaeological artifacts specializing mostly in Antiquity artifacts from Ancient Thrace and the Roman Empire. He was planning to set up a private museum in the building of the former “Telephone Palace" in downtown Sofia via his foundation “Thrace".

In March 2018, marvelous gold and silver Ancient Thracian artifacts from Vasil Bozhkov’s collection were put on display at the National Gallery of Arts in Sofia in an exhibition entitled “The Golden Fleece. The Quest of the Argonauts".

The curators of the exhibition were practically able to demonstrate the entire route of the mythological Argonauts using various gold and silver artifacts from the collection.

Bozhkov’s archaeological collection has been the richest and best known private collection of archaeological artifacts in Bulgaria.

Together with other private collections of archaeological artifacts plagues with suspicions of treasure hunting but legalized under the respective legislation, the existence of Bozhkov’s collection has raised crucial moral questions about the origins of the artifacts considering Bulgaria’s tremendous problem with treasure hunting.

Under Bulgarian legislation, only the sale of antiques is illegal, not their purchase. In 2009, Bulgaria’s Constitutional Court, in a 7 to 5 ruling, stroke down a provision of the Cultural Heritage Act stipulating that owners of antiques were supposed to prove their legal origin, and allowed for the legalization of the ownership if the respective artifact had been owned for more than five years.

Bozhkov himself has been seeking to portray his collection as a “patriotic" endeavor, arguing that his acquisition of artifacts has prevented their illegal smuggling abroad. He has rejected accusations that he himself has been involved in treasure hunting crimes. However, in an interview for the Trud daily from a decade ago, he admitted that he had been buying artifacts from “people who buy from treasure hunters."

Artifacts from Vasil Bozhkov’s private collection seized by the police are seen here as they are being stored at the National Museum of History in Sofia. The collection of nearly 7,000 Antiquity artifacts is estimated to be worth up to EUR 200 million. Photo: Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office

Artifacts from Vasil Bozhkov’s private collection seized by the police are seen here as they are being stored at the National Museum of History in Sofia. The collection of nearly 7,000 Antiquity artifacts is estimated to be worth up to EUR 200 million. Photo: Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office

Artifacts from Vasil Bozhkov’s private collection seized by the police are seen here as they are being stored at the National Museum of History in Sofia. The collection of nearly 7,000 Antiquity artifacts is estimated to be worth up to EUR 200 million. Photo: Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office

Artifacts from Vasil Bozhkov’s private collection seized by the police are seen here as they are being stored at the National Museum of History in Sofia. The collection of nearly 7,000 Antiquity artifacts is estimated to be worth up to EUR 200 million. Photo: Bulgarian Prosecutor’s Office

In 2007, right after Bulgaria’s accession to the European Union, many artifacts from Vasil Bozhkov’s collection were showcased with the official support of the Bulgarian government in a special exhibition at the European Parliament in Brussels.

Artifacts from Bozhkov’s collection have also been showcased at various moments at the National Museum of History in Sofia.

As part of the police searches and legal actions against Bozhkov’s business empire, the Bulgarian authorities seized his archaeological collection, leading to accusations of theft and “barbarianism", and improper keeping of the artifacts, on part of Bozhkov, his aides, and some independent commentators.

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In May 2020, Bozhkov himself declared on Facebook that one rhyton from his collection supposedly kept by the authorities had been on sale on the black market. Bulgaria’s National Museum of History was quick to react, declaring that it was storing the artifact in question, and keeping it under 24-hour video surveillance. Meanwhile, the Bulgarian prosecution alleged that much of Bozhkov’s collection had been kept in his corporate offices in very bad storage conditions.

In a statement on Thursday, November 5, 2020, Bulgaria’s Prosecutor’s Office sought to rebuff all criticism about the handling of Bozhkov’s antiques.

It has announced that a total of 6,778 artifacts with “characteristics of movable cultural valuables" have been seized from Bozhkov’s offices so far.

It adds that all of antiques in question are presently being kept at the National Museum of History in Sofia “in accordance with established rules and under security provided by the Interior Ministry structures."

The Prosecutor’s Office further says that it is seeking out archaeology experts from Germany, Italy, and other fellow EU member states to procure independent appraisal of Bozhkov’s archaeological collection.

“In light of an objective and indisputable appraisal of the seized objects, which according to the prosecution have been acquired and kept illegally by the defendant V.B., the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office is starting talks with leading archaeologists from the Federal Republic of Germany, the Republic of Italy, and other member states of the European Union," reads the statement of the prosecution.

“They will be tasked with establishing the current status, [and the] cultural-historical and financial value of the material evidence seized under this case, which has the characteristics of movable cultural valuables," the statement adds.

The statement from the Prosecutor’s Office is accompanied with several photos and a video footage (below) showing seized artifacts from Vasil Bozhkov’s collection as they are being stored at the National Museum of History in Sofia, allegedly including also the rhyton that Bozhkov claimed had been put on sale on the black market.

This footage from Bulgaria’s Prosecution Office shows the nearly 7,000 antiques as they are being stored at the National Museum of history in Sofia.

“Given the relentless spreading of untrue allegations in the public space regarding the seized… artifacts, and in order to guarantee the transparency of the actions of the Specialized Prosecutor’s Office, the prosecutors observing the case… have granted a permission for the release of video footage and photos of the seized material evidence kept at the National Museum of History," concludes the statement of the Prosecutor’s Office.

According to various media reports, the entire archaeological collection of Vasil Bozhkov is worth between EUR 150 million and EUR 200 million.

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The issues surrounding Bulgaria’s large-scale treasure hunting and antiques trafficking industry, including Bozhkov’s and other private Bulgarian collection, is discussed in detail by ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com founder Ivan Dikov in his 2019 book Plunder Paradise: How Brutal Treasure Hunters Are Obliterating World History and Archaeology in Post-Communist Bulgaria.

Ivan Dikov discusses the issues surrounding the Bulgarian oligarchy and its international standing in another one of his books: Ugly Bargain: How the European Union and Bulgaria’s Post-Communist Oligarchy Fit Together.

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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.

Possiblity the most comprehensive popular book on treasure hunting looting in Bulgaria, “Plunder Paradise", is authored by Ivan Dikov, the founder and publisher of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com.

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.

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