January 31, 2020

Vasil Bozhkov's antiquities collection ordered to be seized by Bulgarian authorities


The National Museum of History (NIM) has received a prosecutorial decree and a letter from the Ministry of Culture to seize and accept the art and antiquities collection of Bulgarian gaming czar Vasil Bozhkov.  This court order, along with seizure orders pertaining to his business assets, accompanies charges stemming from an investigation into allegations of serious financial violations within the gambling industry.  Filed on 29 January 2020 by the country's Prosecutor General, Ivan Geshev, the post-communist era mogul has been indicted in absentia for a series of offenses ranging from leading an organized crime group, incitement to commit criminal offenses, extortion, coercion, blackmail, and attempted bribery of an official. 

Believed to be the country’s richest man, Bozhkov has been referred to as Bulgaria's most infamous gangster, and as being reportedly active in money laundering, privatization fraud, intimidation, extortion, racketeering, and illegal antiqueè [sic] dealing as attested in a diplomatic cable of the US Embassy in Sofia, as far back as 11 September 2009 and released publically via WikiLeaks.  As owner of the country's biggest lottery,  Bozhkov has often been linked in the Bulgarian press to the Bulgarian mafia, but up until now, he has never been convicted of any crime. 

Bozhkov's ancient art collection consists of more than 3,000 antiquities and dates from 4,000 BCE though the 6th century CE.  With questionable provenance and transparency in their acquisition, the assembled objects, some of which can be viewed in the film below, include ancient treasures left by the Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Bulgars, and Thracians, one of the most powerful Indo-European tribes of the ancient world, and one who played an important, creative, and key role in the shaping of European civilization as a whole and Bulgaria's culture in particular. 


Bozhkov also founded the Thrace Foundation in 2004, perhaps to lend credibility to his seemingly controversial collection and began holding exhibitions at various locations throughout Europe thereafter.  Marking Bulgaria's entry to the EU in 2007, his Brussels exhibition, "The Grandeur of Bulgaria" was abruptly terminated at the European Parliament following outraged complaints about the collections origins. One of the most vocal critics was Vassil Nikolov, then director of the National Archaeological Institute with Museum at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and president of the state committee responsible archaeological surveys throughout the country. He signaled out the Bozhkov exhibition as "the fruit of grave-robbing." 

Private collections such as this one in Bulgaria, are often deemed unacceptable, given they are established without concerns for the the provenance of the objects  accumulated and against the backdrop of rampant treasure hunting which is actively eviscerating Bulgaria’s tremendous historical and cultural heritage.

Trying to get ahead of this week's growing scandal, the Thrace Foundation issued an interesting one page press release while their founder remained missing.  Via email, the press release, sent to ARCA and others in the heritage protection community, stated that the authorities had stormed into the laboratory and museum of Thrace Foundation. Their press release read in part:
"At the moment, the Bulgarian authorities are blatantly violating the law by seizing priceless objects from the Vasil Bojkov Collection without any legal justification. The authorities made the decision to export fragile and unique works of art in plastic bags during the unregulated raid that took place in the building of Nove AD Holding, which has the status of a museum."
The Prosecutor’s Office has denied the accusations that Bozhkov’s collection was being mishandled, with the National Museum of History (NIM) reporting that nine museum staff members are involved in the process of packing and transporting the items.

Charged in absentia, Bozhkov's current whereabouts were unknown at the time of this articles writing.  The last flight of his private jet was from Sofia to Dubai.

UPDATE 2 February 2020: Bulgarian Prosecutor General Ivan Geshev, confirms that Vasil Bozhkov, who is the subject of a European arrest warrant, has been detained in the United Arab Emirates.  Bulgaria will now prepare a formal extradition request for his return to Bulgaria to face charges, but given that the U.A.E. and Bulgaria do not have a bilateral extradition agreement, the wait for his return, may stretch indefinitely.

With at least nine people wanted by the Italian judiciary in the UAE, on charges including mafia association, money laundering, drug trafficking, and tax fraud,  the country has become a well-known refuge and money laundering paradise for criminals with big bucks.  Avoiding extradition when its own bilateral agreement was not signed, Raffaele Imperiale, who hid two stolen Van Gogh paintings in one of his family's homes, has avoided his own convictions in absentia for more than ten years.  

Imperiale supplied weapons for a clan feud in the drug ravaged Scampia neighborhood of Naples, working within the drug trade with criminal Rick van der Bunt, who was liquidated in Spain in 2008. Imperiale has been spotted at the seven-star Burj al Arab hotel in Dubai with others who are believed to control the European cocaine trade.

By:  Lynda Albertson

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