Ancient artifacts from all over the Middle East are increasingly being sold online, via social media. Photo: Video grab from CSBN via ATHAR Project
Treasure hunting for archaeological, historical, and cultural artifacts as well as their direct theft and trafficking are on the rise worldwide due to the effect of the global coronavirus pandemic and thanks to the convenience of social media, according to a report.
Criminals involved in treasure hunting, antiquities theft, and the trafficking of artifacts are increasingly conducting trade online – with their targets ranging from ancient mosaics to modern-era paintings by top artists, says a report of AFP, as cited by France24.
While social media have enable brazen sale of stolen cultural treasures online, the health, economic, and social consequences from the COVID-19 pandemic have led to the abandonment or reduced security of countless archaeological, historical, and cultural sites, museums, and cultural tourism venues around the world, the report notes.
Bulgaria, which is not mentioned in the report, is probably plagued by the worst treasure hunting and antiques trafficking situation in Europe, and probably one of the worst in the world.
The report quotes the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research (ATHAR) Project, an international investigative study.
In 2019, the ATHAR project counted a total of 90 Facebook groups, with some 300,000 members, dedicated to the open sale of cultural treasures.
In 2020, their number has grown to 130 Facebook groups, with some 500,000 members. Many of the groups in question are in Arabic.
“Two things Covid did. One: people have more time. Two: People lose their jobs and need to find a way to make money,” Amr Al-Azm, co-director of the ATHAR Project, is quoted as saying.
“This is the incredible part of all this, this is not dark web… You don’t have to be a hacker to find anything,” Al-Azm adds.
He points out that the ATHAR Project has built “a catalogue of thousands and thousands of images” of antiquities up for sale on Facebook, including items such as pharaonic coffins from Ancient Egypt, carved stone tablets from Iraq and Yemen, antique coins from Libya, and mosaics and sculptures from Syria.
“Looting of cultural heritage is as old as humanity itself. For as long as humans have been burying their dead, people have been coming and digging them up,” points out Al-Azm.
In his words, however, the cultural heritage crimes have now “accelerated” as a result of armed conflicts, with local populations seeking ways to survive.
He emphasizes that in recent years, antique traffickers have shifted from traditional markets to the Internet, especially as the usage of social media in the Middle East has exploded, with criminals using Facebook, WhatsApp, and eBay for the purpose.
Facebook in particular is said to be a boon to traffickers as its algorithm calculates what users are interested in, in order to propose new posts and contacts.
In June 2020, Facebook announced a ban on antiquities trading and traders, with expert hoping the social network would be able to enforce the measure.
The report says that, according to experts, from a global perspective, most illegal treasure hunting digs for cultural artifacts occur in the Arab world, Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America – seemingly disregarding the situation in Bulgaria, and at least some other countries in Southeast Europe.
It points out that coronavirus has hurt the fight against the smuggling and trafficking of antiques, while wars and the failed states are exacerbating the problem in countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen, which are rich in archaeological artifacts.
At the same time, though, the report quotes Interpol as saying it has no specific evidence of a surge in illegal excavations at protected heritage sites around the world.
The report notes that on Sunday will be the 50th anniversary since the adoption of the UNESCO Convention against the trafficking of cultural heritage artifacts.
“The pandemic is a scourge [for the efforts to counter trafficking,” Ernesto Ottone, assistant director general for culture at UNESCO, the UN cultural agency, is quoted as saying.
“[At present, there is] more looting, less information, fewer missions, fewer controls,” he adds.
“Often it is fragments of objects that are collected. So, in addition (to the loss of heritage) there is destruction,” Ottone adds.
The surge in the targeting for cultural artifacts to make money has manifested itself in some rich countries through the theft of high-profile valuables such as paintings, the report notes.
For instance, in March 2020, thieves in the Netherlands stole the Vincent van Gogh painting “Parsonage Garden at Nuenen in Spring” from a museum, which had been closed due to the coronavirus.
According to Corrado Catesi of the WOA (Works of Art) unit at global police organization Interpol, the theft was very simple after people were stuck indoors due to a lockdown.
“A man arriving with a motorcycle, opened the door, went away with the painting… It was very simple because (there was) no patrol,” Catesi says.
In France’s capital Paris, since fire damaged severely the Notre-Dame Cathedral in April 2019, thieves have been trying to Steal stones from the site of the reconstruction.
“But we can assume that when all the energies go to the maintenance of health security – when there are fewer patrols especially on archaeological sites often far from cities – other areas are less covered,” Catesi points out.
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.