Der Standard: Antiquities Traders Have Little to Fear of Bulgarian Authorities

Society » ARCHAEOLOGY | September 21, 2016, Wednesday // 11:26
Bulgaria: Der Standard: Antiquities Traders Have Little to Fear of Bulgarian Authorities File photo, BGNES

Illegal trade in antiquities flourishes in Bulgaria, where "treasure hunters have little to fear of authorities," Austrian newspaper Der Standard says in an article.

"Thousands might be taking part in illegal digs," the author argues [DE], adding that "although there are strict laws against illegal trade in antiquities in Bulgaria, these are hardly implemented. There is seldom anything in the way of plunderers, and they can practice their hobby virtually without legal consequences."

The latest technology is used for such activities to boost efficiency.

With immense reserves and treasures left by Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians, and Thracians, some of the artifacts found in Bulgaria can be dated back to the 5th millennium BC.

Kostadin Kostadinov, who heads the Regional History Museum in Dobrich, Northeastern Bulgaria, has proposed to Parliament an amendment which should allow only civil servants the use of metal detectors. Under his proposal, private use of such detectors without consent would require approval. However, instead of receiving a reply from the legislature, has has become the target of "numerous violence and death threats from illegal archaeologists," the author says.

The structures of this business date back to Communist times, when trade in antiquities was conducted under state protection. "After the [democratic] changes the structures were privatized," Samuel Hardy, an expert in illegal antiquities trade at the American University in Rome.

Treasure hunters make no secret of their activities, having even founded the Bulgarian National Metal Detecting Federation which had a national congress earlier in September, with details about the meeting published openly on Facebook.

Those looking for such treasures, however, are mostly not among the biggest winners out of the trade, making up to 2% of the market of illegally acquired art pieces, but in a country where some people earn EUR 200-300 per month, a "second job" gives financial opportunities.

Traders and brokers who help bring the items to local or foreign collectors earn more, turning the business into a lucrative venture for organized criminal networks.

The contact between collectors and traders does not happen through the "dark web", but rather through images sent via Skype or Whatsapp. "Desired items from Bulgaria can often find themselves in private collections in New York, London or Berlin within a month."

In Bulgaria in particular, businessman Vasil Bozhkov is named as one of the known antiquities collectors (citing US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks), owning the biggest number of such artifacts in the country, including ones from the Middle East. "Why does he remain untouched by the judicial authorities? According to Embassy sources, he maintains narrow contacts with government circles."

Professional archaeologists might also have their share, with up to 15-20% of them "somewhat" involved in the trade, Boyan Dimitrov, who heads the Archaeology department at the New Bulgarian University, is quoted as saying.

In his words, profit of such trade can be comparable to that of prostitution or the trade in arms.

According to Bulgarian journalist Ruslan Trad, "the same groups which deal with the arms, drugs and prostitution businesses" are involved in trade in antiquities.


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Tags: antiquities, trade, collectors, Der Standard
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