Showing posts with label Vasil Bozhkov. Thracian. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Vasil Bozhkov. Thracian. Show all posts

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