Showing posts with label Bulgarian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Bulgarian. Show all posts

February 14, 2020

Charge of unlawful possession of items of cultural value has been added to existing charges against Vasil Bozhkov


During a news briefing on Thursday, 13 February, Bulgarian authorities announced that they have added two additional charges to add to those already filed against fugitive billionaire Vasil Bozhkov. 

In addition to the charge of leading an organized crime group, coercion, extortion, attempted bribery of an official and incitement to malfeasance in office, Bozhkov will now be formally charged with influence trading and holding and expropriating valuable cultural artefacts,.

The spokesperson representing the Prosecutor General has indicated that a 200 page application for Bozhkov's extradition has been prepared and awaits translation into Arabic.  Once completed, it will then be sent to the Justice Ministry in the UAE to forward to the competent judicial authority. 


February 11, 2020

The less than clear origins of fugitive Vasil Bozhkov's Thrace and Private Collection

Vessel from the
Panagyurishte Treasure
As Bulgarian authorities work through how to get their fugitive gambling tzar extradited from the UAE to stand trial, the cultural heritage community is crossing their fingers that the country's cultural ministry will (eventually) release a list of the nearly 3,000 artefacts which make up the art and antiquities previously purchased by the business mogul.  But to understand the current state of affairs as it is related to their sequestration, it is necessary to first understand the standing of private collections within this former Soviet-led Eastern Bloc country. 

In the past, Bulgaria's April 1969 Law on the Monuments of Culture and Museums (LMCM), a carryover from the country's communist era, defined cultural objects holding market actors as government agencies, state-owned museums, private and legal individuals.  As such, the LMCM did not explicitly ban the private ownership of antiquities, but it left their legal status somewhat vague.  This allowed collectors, like Bozhkov, and others, to benefit from quasi-legalized private collections, which in Bulgaria seemed to be purchased to philanthropically polish the reputations of the controversial new rich.

Rhyton Vessel from the Panagyurishte Treasure
Faced with a countryside increasingly devastated by archaeological pillaging throughout the 1990s and into the next century, Bulgaria's Ministry of Culture went on to adopt an amendment, Ordinance No.1 in 2005 on the procedure for the evaluation of declared cultural goods owned by legal entities or individuals.  The motivation for this new procedure stated that the implementation of the regulation was done in accordance with the obligations undertaken by the Bulgarian government with respect to their EU accession negotiations under negotiation Chapter 25, Customs Union.  It required that any legal entity or individual in possession of cultural property must complete and submit registration documents for each object within their collection, and for those documents to then be filed with the closest regional or specialized state museum. Unfortunately, despite its unifying intentions, the mandate set no fixed term deadline for an object's registration once purchased and again had gaps which further needed closing. 

Rhyton Vessel from the
Panagyurishte Treasure
Experiencing rampant looting and the moonscape-like devastation which occurred at the ancient Roman settlement of Ratiaria, Bulgaria adopted further stringent rules and legislation related to private collections, in part to address the loot-then launder-then-purchase cycle of plunder which had become a driving force in the market for Bulgaria's Thracian and Roman artifacts.  Revised in part to meet the new requirements corresponding to the rules of the European Union, the country's new Cultural Heritage Act (CHA) was adopted in March of 2009 and was subsequently put into force in April of 2009. This new law included stricter registration requirements and most importantly, the need to show demonstrable proof of legal ownership of objects.

Yet each tightening of restrictions continued to meet with resistance.  

Bulgarian coin collectors grumbled that the newly imposed paperwork was too costly and time consuming to compile for small dealers, i.e. those who make their livelihood off of the buying and selling of ancient ancient coins which are known to change hands frequently.  Likewise, wealthier collectors, already with established collections of costly ancient artifacts, complained that the rules did not allow for any sort of amnesty on prior acquisitions before the law was put in place. Some believed that the change in requirements favored those in political favor, and complained that even the country's own state museums could not pass the new stringent requirements now being required of them.  Privacy advocates also voiced suspicions that burglaries of private collections might be committed with the involvement of corrupt government officials who would, as a result of the new rules, have access to the property registration documentation of private citizens.

Which brings us back to the current state of Mr. Bozhkov's collection. 

Prior to the recent freezing of Bozhkov's assets the Thrace Foundation is believed to have successfully completed the applications for legalization for just 212 of Bozhkov's nearly 3,000 objects.  Many of these registered objects have been displayed in travelling exhibitions which have toured in Brussels, Moscow, and Sofia between 2005 and 2018. 

These objects, reportedly authorized by the Ministry of Culture, appear to have been registered as part of the private Vasil Bozhkov Museum which is said to be an independent legal entity. This entity "owns" the exhibits which make up the collection belonging to the Thrace Foundation, a non-profit organization, founded by Vasil Bozhkov in 2004.

It has been reported by some news agencies that the approximately 2700 remaining Bozhkov items have been declared with the government within the last ten years, and that the businessman applied for registration via the National Institute of Science, though no dates for these applications has been specified.  Even if the objects were dutifully declared, the bulk of the art and antiquities have not been formally evaluated to determine their origins or authenticity, nor has Bozhkov paid the 30 Bulgarian lev fee for each object's registration.   What should be noted however is that there is no deadline for paying this fee stated in the country's regulations, nor is there a deadline for the government to rule on an object's legitimacy, once it has been filed.  

Given that the objects have not yet been formally evaluated by heritage experts approved by the Ministry of Culture, is not clear at present how many of the artefacts in Bozhkov's private collection would meet the following Bulgarian two-step registration criteria. 

That identification/qualification process consists of two steps:  
  • identification the object to be registered via photos and historical or scientific records which concretize an artifact's authenticity and origin. 
  • provide supporting evidence of the object's legitimacy and purchase, via  substantiated collecting histories, concretized by an object's accompanying provenance records. 
Failure to establish an artwork or artifact's legitimacy via the above criteria, can result in the object's legal registration being withheld.   In some cases, said objects may be subject to seizure in favor of the state under Art. 278a (Last amendment, SG No. 27/2009 in force as of 10.04.2009) of the Penal Code which states:

(1) An individual who offers a valuable cultural artifact to the purpose of expropriation or expropriates a valuable cultural artifact which is not identified or registered, is imposed a punishment of imprisonment from one to six years and a fine from one thousand to twenty thousand BGN.

(2) The punishment is also imposed to an individual who acquire such cultural artifact.

(3) In the cases when the crimes under para 1 and 2 have been committed over again or are qualified as dangerous recidivism or they have been committed after an order or in implementation of a decision of an organized criminal group or they have been committed with the purpose the object of crime to be exported over the state border, the punishment which is imposed is imprisonment for a term from three to ten years and a fine from five thousand BGN to fifteen thousand BGN.

The gambler makes a case for buying antiquities to save them

Bozhkov himself is known to have admitted that not all of his antiquities would pass the country's registration sniff test.  In a 2005 interview with Bulgaria's daily newspaper Trud he unremorsefully confessed "I buy from people who buy from treasure hunters...I have more opportunities than the state."  He then justified his purchases by admitting "I am satisfied that I have at least somewhat limited the export of this wealth."   

By agreeing to purchase unprovenanced antiquities to develop his private collection and to fill his private museum, in furtherance of irresponsible collecting practices, Bozhkov and collectors like him, have continued to  incentivize destructive or clandestine excavations, feeding the demand for illicit goods. 

How big a demand?

Bozhkov's thirst for antiquities was large.  His collection of Thracian gold is believed to be larger than that held by Bulgaria's National Museum of History.  His collection is known to include three gilded silver vases representing Orpheus, situlae, several gold wreaths from Thracian rulers, gold funeral masks, kylix, lekanes, epichysis, oinochoi, phialae, a silver kantharos with an image of Theseus, and at least ten silver rhytons.  And that is just representative of some of what we know from the exhibitions of his collection to date. 

For now, it remains unknown which, if any of his purchases will eventually be restituted to the state on the basis on illicit origin, or, in the case of licit purchases, might be lawfully returned to Bozhkov after the conclusion of the state's current assessment. His collection might also be subject to criminal forfeiture by means of confiscation should he be convicted of the charges he is facing and should it be proven that the art and antiquities were acquired through the proceeds of crime. 

By:  Lynda Albertson

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

February 7, 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

http://www.all-sa.com/GaleriasCataluna.html

http://html.ancientegyptonline.org/spain-recovers-egyptian-artifacts-in-smuggling-ring/

http://archaeology.archbg.net/

http://www.elmundo.es/cultura/2015/01/28/54c8d1f5e2704e4e0c8b457f.html

https://www.europol.europa.eu/content/european-police-arrest-35-and-recover-thousands-stolen-cultural-artefacts

https://frognews.bg/news_85185/DANS-pogna-V-B-proveriavat-antichnata-mu-kolektsiia/

https://www.google.com/maps/place/Colonia+Ulpia+Ratiaria/@43.5557251,24.675708,9z

http://www.guardiacivil.es/ca/prensa/noticias/5219.html

http://www.lavanguardia.com/sucesos/20150128/54425193062/desmantelada-banda-arte-egipcio-ilegal.html

http://lootingmatters.blogspot.it/2009/01/sofia-detention-comment-from-phoenix.html

http://m.novinite.com/articles/162960/Bulgaria+Busts+Int%27l+Antiquities+Trafficking+Ring

http://www.novinite.com/articles/130391/WikiLeaks%3A+US+CDA+Report+on+Top+Bulgarian+Criminals#sthash.1qrWNiES.dpuf

http://www.museum-security.org/2009/01/bulgarian-prosecutor-kamen-mihov-and-bulgarian-millionaire-and-art-collector-vassil-bozhkov-were-alleged-to-have-been-involved-in-an-elaborate-scheme-to-let-international-art-dealer-ali-aboutaam-esc/

http://www.museum-security.org/2009/01/press-release-the-continuing-story-about-art-dealer-ali-abou%E2%80%99taam-can-justice-be-bought-in-bulgaria/

http://www.researchgate.net/publication/264380100_Pegman_caught_looters_in_the_act!_How_digital_media_can_help_raising_awareness_of_looting_and_destruction_of_archaeological_sites._The_example_of_Ratiaria._The_European_Archaeologist._Issue_41_Summer_2014_25-27

http://sofiaecho.com/2009/01/21/666138_bulgarian-prosecutor-art-collector-conspired-to-free-controversial-art-dealer-journalist-alleges

http://sofiaglobe.com/2015/01/30/bulgaria-busts-international-antiquities-trafficking-ring/

http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/archaeology-in-crisis-bulgaria-plagued-by-grave-robbers-a-524976.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/EBay