February 6, 2015

Sir, how much is that (2nd Century B.C.E.) Vase in the Window? Part I

2015 has barely started and antiquities traffickers have begun making headlines in multiple countries.  In this three part series, ARCA will explore three current trafficking cases in detail to underscore that the ownership and commodification of the past continues. 

Part I - Operation Aureus - Bulgaria's Blues

On January 30th the State Agency for National Security (DANS) in Bulgaria reported that it had conducted two significant trafficking investigations into illegally circulated ancient and medieval objects and coins.  The two-month long probe started November 26, 2014 and ran until January 26, 2015 during which time DANS officers conducted thirty-six searches in eleven cities seizing a total of 2,289 objects protected by Bulgaria’s Cultural Heritage Act.  The Act encompasses intangible and tangible immovable and movable heritage as an aggregate of cultural values which bear historical memory and national identity and have their own academic or cultural value.   SANS reported that they detained several individuals for their participation in an organized criminal group trafficking in antiquities but their names have not been currently been released to the public, citing the ongoing nature of the ongoing investigation.

Google Maps Looters

Google Maps Looters
From an ancient world perspective, Bulgaria has some of the richest archaeological sites in Europe.  From an economic perspective, regions such as Severozapaden, have some of the lowest-ranked economies in Bulgaria and the European Union.  That makes archaeologically rich areas, like Ratiaria, which is located on the Danube River, near the modern day city of Archar, in the Vidin District of Northwest Bulgaria particularly vulnerable.  With unemployment high and limited work possibilities since the fall of Communism, its not surprising that subsistence looters have treated the site as their own personal Automatic Antiquities Machine.  The territory has been so heavily looted in the past twenty years that even a Google Street View car managed to snap shots of a local looting crew while mapping area roads.

Working with shovels and metal detectors, looters generally make little, often passing their finds on to local middlemen dealers, like this one arrested in Ruptsi, Bulgaria in in 2011. Hiding in plane sight,  the business man was known among the locals and among treasure hunters as an active dealer in cultural goods in the region and was brazen enough to keep a storage of heavier items in his garden.

Where There are Looters there are Buyers and Not all Roads Lead to Rome

While the number of items seized in this 2015 Bulgarian investigation is distressingly large, the types of objects confiscated are all too familiar to art police who's investigative work revolves around combating heritage looting and smuggling.  To those who examine heritage trafficking in search of patterns there are also a few interesting points to consider.

The Bulgarian investigators seized everything from pottery and figurines, bronze and precious metal, jewellery of all types, ancient and medieval seals, religious crosses and icons, pieces of marble, and even Thracian weapons and horse-riding decorations. The objects have common denominators: they were, for the most part, easy to traffic because of their small size and they were the types of objects buyers willingly purchase, and with increasing frequency via online auction sites. 

Whether or not these items were destined for sites similar to eBay would be a hypothesis that hasn't be proven, but what we can underscore is that there is an ongoing supply market furnishing ancient objects for online transactions.  Platforms like eBay, with millions of auctions annually, are difficult for law enforcement to police, but easy sites for traffickers to navigate to connect with potential buyers internationally. The seller can be relatively anonymous and as their ratings are built on successful sales with satisfied customers, shady dealers can add or drop seller profiles to masquerade as being ethically legitimate.

Who is their preferred buyer?  

The individual who is willing to purchase heritage objects from anonymous suppliers.  The novice collector or aficionado who is not worried about owning objects which might turn out to be fake or might not have a pristine collection history that explains the context of the item, where it has originated from or who has been its custodian up until the point of sale.  For the purpose of this article ARCA has highlighted three current online auctions with similar Bulgarian items to those seized during the Aureus investigation.

Auction I lists a purported 9th century BC Ancient Bronze Thracian Fibula. The object was being offered by a seller in Bulgaria but listed nothing in the way of collection history as was absent in most of the auctions we viewed.  Provenance isn't something auction participants seem to require in order to consider an item attractive for purchase.

Auction II claims to be of a rare iron Thracian battle weapon, CIRCA IV-Ic. B.C. This  auctioneer is reportedly UK-based, applying a layer of legitimacy, but the item's auction detail states the object will be shipped to the buyer "from Eastern Europe".  Again there is no collection history and the buyer is far removed from the trafficker.
Auction III lists an object on sale described as an Ancient Thracian Honrseman Bronze Figure. This auction item has purportedly travelled a long way and is now being sold by a Canadian antique trader, again without benefit of a collection history indicating how it made its way to North America. The seller does not appear to be a novice, and states he has been in the trading business since 1970.

Interesting Observations

During the Bulgarian DANS investigation law enforcement officers also seized metal detectors and specific geophysical detecting instruments used to determination of the exact position and depth of objects while still in the ground thus showing that these devices are not used exclusively by law-abiding recreationists willing to abide by established laws.

Like with Italy's Gianfranco Becchina case, officers confiscated binders with multiple photos, auction house catalogs and invoices indicating that the scale of items being sold was a fluid enterprise level operation and not a casual one-off sale. 

Landscapes of looted terrain in Bulgaria have a similar moonscape pattern to those we have seen repeatedly in satellite imagery in Syria and Iraq.  This should be highlighted as proof that large-scale antiquities looting is not solely a funding source for criminal groups such as ISIS in conflict zones but also a source for revenue streams in economically challenging areas with a high rate of under or unemployement.  In this Google Street View image one can see an example of the looting pits that cover large swaths of Bulgaria terrain as well as a brazen group of looters working in broad daylight as an organized team.
In addition to searching workshops, DANS agents undertook an evaluation of Bulgaria's largest private museum in search of irregularities. The businessman who owns this vast collection was listed in law enforcement press releases using his initials, "VB".   Bulgarian press have indicated that the initials represent millionaire Vasil Bozhkov who is known to have a vast collection of Roman, Greek and Thracian works of art and who's coin collection is listed as one of the most extensive in the country. Bozhkov is also the founder of The Thrace Foundation an organization active in heritage-based events.

Previously, in January 2009, Petar Kostadinov published an article reporting that Vassil Bozhkov and Bulgarian prosecutor Kamen Mihov were alleged to have been involved in government-level corruption  plot devised to prevent the extradition of international art dealer Ali Abou’Taam to Egypt on antiquities trafficking charges.

The allegations presented in the newspaper article cited an email published by Dutch private art investigator Arthur Brand to the Museum Security Network mailing-list.  A representative of Phoenix Ancient Art replied to David Gill's Looting Matters blog with this letter relating to the detention of Ali Aboutaam in Sofia.  No mention of Mr. Bozhkov's relationship with the art dealer was made.

Eight months later, a diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in Sofia, dated September 11, 2009, released first via WikiLeaks and later republished by the Sofia News Agency Novelite indicated that Bozhkov has been long suspected of having ties to organized crime.

On January 14, 2015 the US ambassador to Bulgaria Marcie B. Ries and Bulgaria’s Culture Minister Petar Stoyanovich signed a memorandum of understanding at the National History Museum in Boyana on the outskirts of Sofia.  This US/Bulgarian MOU calls for the protection of cultural heritage and is designed to prevent the illicit trade of Bulgarian cultural heritage items into the United states and to allow the return of said items to Bulgaria of any such item confiscated. 

ARCA will continue to follow this case as details on the investigation are released.

By Lynda Albertson, ARCA

(Photos: dans.bg)
References Used in this Article





















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