Showing posts with label organized crime. Show all posts
Showing posts with label organized crime. 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 2, 2019

Art theft as a profitable career: An update on the Pierre-Auguste Renoir art theft in Vienna and its connection to a Ukraine art dealer.

Image Credit Right Photo:  Vadim Guzhva - Austrian Police
Image Credit Left Photo: Vadim Guzhva KP News, Ukraine
On November 28, 2018 three well-dressed men in jackets and coats entered Vienna's oldest auction house, the Dorotheum, just after sunset, and made off with a landscape painted by Pierre-Auguste Renoir titled Golfe, Mer, Falaises Vertes (English: Gulf, Sea, Green Cliffs, just ahead of the painting's autumn sale.

Lot 102 in the "Modern Art" auction, the oil on canvas painting was executed by the French impressionist artist in 1895 and was estimated to sell at between €120,000 and €160,000 at the time of its Autumn consignment.  The painting was also to be listed in the forthcoming Pierre-Auguste Renoir digital catalogue raisonné being prepared under the sponsorship of the Wildenstein Plattner Institute, one of two rivaling authenticating bodies believed to have the last word when it comes to Renoir.

According to spokespersons with the regional court and police in Vienna, one of the three accomplices, a 59 year old Kharkov antiquarian named Vadim Guzhva, was arrested at Schipol Airport in Amsterdam on December 12, 2019 and then transferred to Vienna authorities to face charges in Austria on December 28, 2018.  At the time the European arrest warrant (EAW) was executed, a shopping bag recovered in the defendant's Amsterdam hotel room was said to match the one which had been carried by another accomplice on the day of the theft in Austria.  That bag appears in the CCTV footage taken at the Dorotheum of the three suspects on the day of the painting's theft.  It is speculated that Guzhva may have been shopping the Renoir to individuals on his trip to the Netherlands or perhaps in a Scandinavian country as he had apparently purchased a ticket to Sweden.

Image Credit:  Vienna Police

This is not the first occasion where Vadim Guzhva has found himself in the sights of law enforcement authorities for pilfering works of art

On January 23, 2006 Guzhva was stopped by authorities in the city of Pavlysh, Ukraine following up on investigative leads received by the Kyiv Special Service Police (UBOP).  Inside his Opel-Astra, officers found a painting by the celebrated Russian-Armenian seascape artist, Ivan (Hovhannes) Konstantinovich Aivazovsky, titled "A Sea View." The artwork had been rolled up under one of the seats inside the automobile.

Aivazovsky's artwork had been stolen from the Odessa Art Museum on the night of June 21, 2005.  Fingerprints found on the rolled canvas where also matched with fingerprints found on the discarded frame of a painting by Vasily Polenov, titled "Resurrection Pechersk Monastery" which was also stolen, in a broad daylight theft on September 17, 2005 at the Sevastopol Art Museum. 

Russian news reports have stated that during the Sevastopol theft Guzhva first made several reconnaissance visits to the museum before actually moving forward with the theft of the painting in order to scope out the museum's vulnerabilities.  On the day of the theft, under the guise of Russian art connoisseurs, one accomplice, thought to be Igor Filonenko, is believed to have distracted a guard with questions about another artist's painting in order to create a ruse which would buy sufficient time for a second accomplice to deftly substitute the artwork with a laminated photocopy of the canvas.

Laundered via the black market, the Polenov landscape later reappeared after Guzhva's arrest.  On October 6, 2006, an anonymous individual contacted the Russian Interior Ministry and reported that a plastic bag with artworks could be found near the building of the Department for Combating Organized Crime in Moscow.  Inside said bag, officers recovered not only Vasily Polenov's "Resurrection Pechersk Monastery," but other artworks as well, including a vase made by Polish masters stolen from the Hermitage in 2005, a bronze statuette titled "Master of Evil Demons June Kui" and a piece of porcelain ware “Arbor for Cicadas” which were stolen in May 2005 from the Chinese exposition at the Kunstkamera Museum in St. Petersburg.

Yet despite testimonies and various alabis, as well as claiming he was framed by corrupt members of the Department for Organized Crime Control in Kirovograd, Guzhv was also implicated by Igor Filonenko, who testified against his former cohort from prison.  Guzhv was subsequently convicted by the Malinovsky District Court of Odessa and went on to spend six years in an Odessa prison.

Accomplices on the run and the stuff of movies

According to Vienna State Criminal Police Office, the suspect's two alleged accomplices have not been arrested and the whereabouts of the 1895 Renoir landscape remains unknown.

What is known is that frequently, without creating any sort of public scene, thieves are able to take advantage of undersecured & unprotected galleries, museums, and auction houses where cases like this show that culprits are able to quietly enter and nonchalantly remove artwork from a display and then calmly and discreetly leave the building before security even notices.

While it seems that this could only happen in the movies, in real life, it happens more frequently than one would imagine.

Why Aivazovsky? 

Aivazovsky's works are quite popular among art thieves and Russia and the Ukraine region specifically have had their share of thefts of this artist's works, only to have them reappear on the legitimate market long after their initial theft.

In 2017 "View on Revel" (1845), stolen from the Dmitrov Kremlin Museum in 1976, was listed at auction with Koller Auktionen in Zürich, Switzerland with an estimated sale price of one million dollars.

In June 2015 another of his paintings, "A Night in Cairo" valued at £1.5-2 million, was removed from an auction at Sotheby's pending clarification of circumstances after a request by the National Central Bureau of INTERPOL in Russia was made to Great Britain authorities as the Russians stated that they believed that the artwork was stolen from a private collection in Moscow in 1997.

On January 13, 2011 a number of insured paintings, including another by Aivazovsky, were stolen from the country house of Aleksandr Tarantsev, the president of the Russian Gold Group.   Tarantsev's name has since been linked with the Medvedkovo-Orekhovskaya group for the money laundering.

July 22, 2018

Organised crime, museum theft and bank robbery


On Wednesday the Berlin public prosecutor's office and the state criminal police provisionally seized 77 properties, including apartments, houses and land belonging to members of the "Lebanese" Kurdish extended family "Remmo" worth an estimated 9.3 million euros.  These seizures were based on evidence that the properties was likely purchased with proceeds from crime using new rules under the German Criminal Code (StGB) and Criminal Procedural Order (StPO) enacted 1 July 2017.  Modelled after Italy's own organised crime laws on property seizure,  where the state may order the seizure of property that a person of interest is able to dispose of when the value of the property is disproportionate to the person’s declared income or economic activity, Germany's new law regulates the recovery of criminal proceeds and serves to effectively confiscate illegal proceeds from offenders or third beneficiaries who can be tied to proceeds from criminal transactions.  

This is the same organised crime family, one of the grandfamilies of Lebanese-Kurdish descent, who immigrated to Germany during Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, and who were written about previously on this blog in relation to their involvement in the eye-popping March 2017 theft of a 100-kilogram gold coin stolen from the Münzkabinett (coin cabinet) at the Bode Museum in Berlin.

One year ago, in July of 2017 police arrested three members of this Mhallamiye kurdish family, Abdul, Ahmed, and Wissam Remmo, each on suspicion of involvement in the museum theft along with a fourth suspect, an employee of the Bode museum who held a subcontracting job as a supervisor.  The Big Maple Leaf coin, made of 99.999 percent pure gold, was (once) the largest coin ever to have been minted.  Unfortunately, the object has never been recovered and likely has been melted down and its proceeds used by other criminal accomplices.

Authorities began looking more closely into the transactions of the Remmo clan in 2014, when members of the clan were tied to involvement in a spectacularly violent bank heist in the outskirts of Berlin.  During that robbery heavily armed gunmen with sub-machine guns rounded up and threatened bank employees and cleaning staff before making off with €8 million in valuables from the suburban bank's safety deposit boxes.  Using DNA found at the crime scene, Toufic Remmo, 33, was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in the offence.  

During the current investigation, financial investigators of the State Criminal Police Office searched 13 locations in Berlin and Brandenburg tied to 16 members of the Remmo clan allegedly believed to have ties to proceeds from ongoing criminal activity. According to state officials members of the clan have been involved in drug-dealing, extortion, theft and robberies to acquire income-earning real estate for the family group. 

According to the Berlin police, 14 of the 68 major investigations into organised crime in the city in 2017 involved members of ethnic family crime groups like the Remmos which are difficult to penetrate given the closed familial structures of the clans.

By:  Lynda Albertson

November 17, 2017

A Sicilian Mafia Primer to Organized Crime Members with apparent ties to Gianfranco Becchina


This is a list of mafia-tied individuals and cooperating mafia-tied individuals authorities have stated have associations with, or who have directly implicated, Gianfranco Becchina for Cosa Nostra involvement. 

(Note:  This list is not complete and will be updated periodically as other names and details are released.)

Giovanni Brusca - Ex Capomafia of the San Giuseppe Jato family.  Incarcerated. Also known as "U' Verru" (in Sicilian) or Il Porco or Il Maiale, (In Italian: The Pig, The Swine) or lo scannacristiani (christian-slayer; in Italian dialects the word "christians" often stands in place of human beings). The information he provided regarding Becchina has not been made public though it appears to implicate Becchina with having had a relationship with  Francesco Messina Denaro and fencing of antiquities.

Calculating and violent, Brusca is known to have tortured the 11-year-old son of a mafia turncoat or pentito to get him to retract statements made to the authorities in connection to the Capaci massacre.  After holding the boy hostage for 26 months, he strangled the child and dissolved his body in acid.  Brusca  once stated that he had killed "between 100 and 200" people with his own hands but was unable to recall exactly how many murders he had participated in or ordered.

Brusca is also responsible for detonating 100 kilograms of TNT in 1992 under the highway between Palermo and the Punta Raisi airport in a bomb attack which murdered anti-Mafia magistrate and prosecutor Giovanni Falcone, Falcone's wife and five of his bodyguards. In 1993 Brusca mounted further bombing raids throughout mainland Italy hoping to intimidate politicians into reversing decrees for tougher jail regimes for incarcerated mafiosi. This wave of bombings in Florence, Milan and Rome left 10 people dead and injured 70 others.

Later, after his arrest, and through a series of strange accords, Brusca also turned informant, though much of his testimony has, at times, appeared to be self serving.  His testimony has afforded him controversial and exceptional treatment in direct contrast with his previous level of lethality. According to some of the testimony released, Messina Denaro was given the job of picking which paintings to target in the Florence bombing that ripped through a wing of the world famous Uffizi gallery because of his knowledge of art.    He is currently sentenced to life in prison.

Rosario Cascio - Mafia Associate to several bosses in multiple families including the fugitive Matteo Messina Denaro of the Castelvetrano family.  Incarcerated.  A Sicilian building magnate known as the "cashier of Cosa Nostra." At one time had a hit put out on him by mobster Angelo Siino only to have Matteo Messina Denaro intervene on his behalf.

Cascio managed the family's economic activities and sub-contracts, and monopolized the concrete market and the sale of and construction equipment.  Through these he steered public contracts towards mafia businesses and managed an extortion racket which imposed sub contracts and labor.  In 1991 Cascio became connected with Becchina's Atlas cements Ltd., and took over as reference shareholder and director.

Vincenzo Calcara - exMafia soldier of the Castelvetrano family and collaborator of justice. Former protege of Francesco Messina Denaro.  Previously involved in international drug trafficking and money laundering which purportedly implicated the Vatican bank.  Calcara was originally tasked to kill antimafia Judge Paolo Borsellino with a sniper rifle but was arrested before he could carry out the plot. Involved in the trafficking of weapons, drugs, and political corruption. Offered a place in the witness protection program but refused.  Later Cosa Nostra determined his whereabouts and threatened his wife if she didn't get him to stop talking to authorities.  In 1992 Calcara and Rosario Spatola incriminated Becchina for alleged association with the Campobello di Mazara and Castelvetrano clans implying that there was a gang affiliate active in Switzerland whose role was to excavate and sell ancient artefacts on the black market.

Lorenzo Cimarosa -  Mafia declarant and law enforcement collaborator. Deceased.  Died as the result of cancer while on house arrest. Cimarosa was married to a cousin of mob boss Matteo Messina Denaro. Cimarosa told authorities about a warning message Becchina received from the mob in January 2012.  In that incident, someone fired shots from a shotgun at Becchina's door and left an intimidating gift of flowers. Cimarosa told authorities that he had heard through Francesco Guttadauro, nephew of the boss of the Castelvetrano family, that the incident was ordered by Matteo Messina Denaro himself for non-delivery of payments.  Cimorosa indicated that between 70 and 80,000 euros were paid through Becchina regularly. After his death the site where Cimorasa was buried has subsequently vandalized, perhaps as a warning to his wife and son. 

Francesco Messina Denaro - Capo Mandamento of the Castelvetrano family.  Deceased.  Died in hiding in 1998 while a fugitive from justice.  Father to Matteo Messina Denaro who took over his father's enterprise.  Francesco, also known as Don Ciccio, headed up the Castelvetrano family from 1981 until 1998 and was a member of the Cupola (Mafia Commission) of the Trapani region from 1983 until his death in 1998.  He was a close ally to the Corleone faction led by Salvatore "Totò" Riina and Bernardo Provenzano.  Purportedly had ties to Becchina relating to the theft, looting, and laundering of antiquities. 

Matteo Messina Denaro - Boss of the Castelvetrano family. Also known as "Diabolik." Fugutive.  Solidified his position in the mafia following the arrests of two of his predecessors, Salvatore "Totò" Riina in 1993 and Bernardo Provenzano in 2006.  A fugitive since 1993, he has been convicted in absentia for the Sicilian mafia's bombing campaign in the early 1990s, which killed magistrates and bystanders in Sicily, Rome and Florence which killed ten people and injured 93 others.  He once boasted "I filled a cemetery all by myself." According to Giovanni Brusca, Matteo Messina Denaro was the facilitator of the 1993 Uffizi gallery bombing in Florence.  In that incident a Fiat car packed with 100kg of explosives detonated killing six people, and destroying three paintings - two by Bartolomeo Manfredi and one by the Gherardo delle Notti.  He was also implicated in the bombing of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome.  Becchina allegedly passed envelopes of money to Denaro's brother in law and sister. Investigative seizures made by authorities in connection with this Cosa Nostra boss are so extensive it is hard to tell where the economy of western Sicily stops and Denaro’s mafia-controlled empire begins.  

Patrizia Messina Denaro - Sister of fugitive Boss and Capodonna representative of the Castelvetrano family.  Incarcerated.  Serving a 14 year and 6 months sentence for acting as stand in Capo Donna for her brother.  She was found guilty of being a full member of the Mafia and not an affiliate mafia. Several firms including an olive-oil company belonging to her and her husband were impounded and a number of bank accounts frozen.

Francesco Geraci - Mafia associate to Boss of Bosses Salvatore "Totò" Riina of of the Catania Family.  Incarcerated. There are two Cosa Nostra affiliates in custody with this same name.  One is the nephew and one is son of a deceased capomafia of the mafia family of Chiusa Sclafani.  It is unclear at this time which is cooperating with authorities. 

Giuseppe Grigoli - Mafia associate to the Castelvetrano family and law enforcement collaborator. Incarcerated. Also known as "Grigg." Former owner of a chain of Despar supermarkets in Sicily, convicted of being the entrepreneurial arm of fugitive Messina Denaro’s organisation using his retail and distribution group to launder Matteo Messina Denaro's cash.  Told the PM of the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of Palermo that between 1999 and 2006 he was given envelopes filled with money by Becchina which were to be delivered to Vincenzo Panicola, the husband of Matteo Messina Denaro's sister Patrizia Messina Denaro. These exchanges were said to have taken place in the former offices of 6Gdo, the distribution chain confiscated just at the time of his arrest. 

Concetto Mariano - Mafia Associate of the Cosa Nostra Marsala family and law enforcement collaborator. Incarcerated. Mariano began cooperating with justice officials two months after being arrested.  Implicated Becchina in a plot to steal and fence in Switzerland the bronze statue of the Dancing Satyr, attributed by scholars to Praxiteles housed at the Piazza Plebiscito Museum in Mazara del Vallo.

Vincenzo Panicola - Mafia associate. -Incarcerated.  Brother-in-Law of fugitive Castelvetrano boss, Matteo Messina Denaro. Husband of Patrizia Messina Denaro, sister of the boss.  Worked with mafia associate Mafia associate to the Castelvetrano family, Giuseppe Grigoli. Convicted in 2013 to ten years in prison. Several firms including an olive-oil company belonging to him and his wife were impounded and a number of bank accounts frozen.

Santo Sacco - Mafia associate - Incarcerated.  A former UIL trade unionist and city councillor for Castelvetrano, Sacco was  sentenced to 12 years for is affiliations with Matteo Messina Denaro in the control of various business activities, including alternative energy as well as activities in support of the families of mobsters incarcerated.  Wiretaps of conversations with Becchina show collusion towards vote fixing and influence peddling in support of the election campaigns of Giuseppe Marinello and Ludovico Corrao. 

Angelo Siino - Mafia associate to the San Giuseppe Jato family. Incarcerated.  Often referred to as Cosa Nostra's "ex-minister of public works".  A businessman who oversaw whose principal duties were to oversee mafia public sector affairs through the illegal acquisition of public work contracts. Siino would receive the lists of public contracts before they became publicised and through through threats and extortion, insure that these contracts would be awarded to mafia influence coalitions, thereby controlling the market for public contracts in Sicily.

Rosario Spatola - Law enforcement collaborator.  Deceased. A former drug dealer who passed information in the 1990s to Judge Paolo Borsellino on drug trafficking in Trapani area and the role of the clan led by Boss Francesco Messina Denaro.  Believed by some not to be a true member of Cosa Nostra as his father was a policeman making his membership void.  In 1992 Spatola and Vincenzo Calcara, incriminated Becchina for alleged association with the Campobello di Mazara and Castelvetrano clans implying that there was a gang affiliate active in Switzerland whose role was to excavate and sell ancient artefacts on the black market.  At the time much of his testimony was discounted as many were skeptical that he had actual knowledge or invented things to his own benefit.

For more details on this case please see the following to blog posts here and here

November 16, 2017

Il vento sta cambiando, updates on Gianfranco Becchina asset seizure, fire, and vote fixing.

Politics and mafia are both powers which draw life from the control of the same territory; so they either wage war or come to some form of agreement.
--Paolo Borsellino,
Italian magistrato italiano, murdered by the Mafia


Yesterday ARCA reported on the assets seizures involving 78-year-old Gianfranco Becchina, an action taken in relation to probable collusion with the Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra. The disgraced Italian antiquities dealer was convicted in the first degree in 2011 for his role in the illegal antiquities trade. A portion of his accumulated business records, up until 2002, were seized earlier by Swiss and Italian authorities during raids conducted on Becchina’s Swiss art gallery, Palladion Antique Kunst, as well as two storage facilities inside the Basel Freeport, and another elsewhere in Switzerland. This archive of documents and photos, known as the Becchina archive, consists of some 140 binders containing more than 13,000 documents and photos related to antiquities, bought and sold, which at one point or another are known to have passed through this dealer's network of illicit suppliers.


Mafia association is a formal criminal offense provided for by the Italian penal code introduced into law via article 416-ter of Law no. 646/1982, and designed to combat the spread of the Mafia.

Art. 416-ter reads: 

"Any person participating in a Mafia-type unlawful association including three or more persons shall be liable to imprisonment for 7 to 12 years. 

Those persons promoting, directing or organizing the said association shall be liable, for this sole offence, to imprisonment for 9 to 14 years. 

Mafia-type unlawful association is said to exist when the participants take advantage of the intimidating power of the association and of the resulting conditions of submission and silence to commit criminal offences, to manage or at all events control, either directly or indirectly, economic activities, concessions, authorizations, public contracts and services, or to obtain unlawful profits or advantages for themselves or for others, or with a view to prevent or limit the freedom to vote, or to get votes for themselves or for others on the occasion of an election. 

Should the association be of the armed type, the punishment shall be imprisonment for 9 to 15 years pursuant to paragraph 1 and imprisonment for 12 to 24 years pursuant to paragraph 2. 

An association is said to be of the armed type when the participants have firearms or explosives at their disposal, even if hidden or deposited elsewhere, to achieve the objectives of the said association. 

If the economic activities of which the participants in the said association aim at achieving or maintaining the control are funded, totally or partially, by the price, the products or the proceeds of criminal offences, the punishments referred to in the above paragraphs shall be increased by one-third to one-half. 

The offender shall always be liable to confiscation of the things that were used or meant to be used to commit the offence and of the things that represent the price, the product or the proceeds of such offence or the use thereof. 

The provisions of this article shall also apply to the Camorra, ‘ndrangheta and to any other associations, whatever their local titles, even foreigners, seeking to achieve objectives that correspond to those of Mafia-type unlawful association by taking advantage of the intimidating power of the association." 

To further dismantle Matteo Messina Denaro’s operational funding, Italy's Anti-Mafia Investigative Directorate (DIA) moved to seize Becchina's cement trade business, Atlas Cements Ltd., his olive oil company, Olio Verde srl., Demetra srl., Becchina & Company srl., bank accounts, land, and real estate properties including Palazzo Pignatelli yesterday.  Palazzo Pignatelli is part of the ancient Castello Bellumvider, a separate portion of which is owned by the city of Castelvetrano and houses the town hall. 

During the execution of the seizure of assets at Palazzo Pignatelli, a fire mysteriously broke out in a first-floor study, located in Becchina's wing of of the property.  Called on the scene, fire department officials extinguished the flames yesterday and returned for a second time today, along with the DIA and scientific police to uncover any traces that would determine the cause of the fire.

The seizure of these Becchina assets comes following the cooperation of mafia associate/police informant Giuseppe Grigoli, known in wiretaps as Grig.  Grigoli once owned a chain of Despar supermarkets in northwestern Sicily, used to launder mafia proceeds into the legal economy.  Starting out in 1974 as the owner of one grocery, Grigoli parlayed his relationship with Cosa Nostra, building a business empire which was once valued as a 700 million euro enterprise. 

The Italian authorities seized Grigoli's assets when they tied him to mafia  transactions through banking documents from 1999 through 2002, when the "king of supermarkets" was at the height of his business success. The arrest and conviction of Grigoli proved to be the tip of the Trapani Cosa Nostra iceberg and served to flush out many players in the hidden network of strategic partners that facilitate the activities of fugitive Castelvetrano boss, Matteo Messina Denaro, including now, Gianfranco Becchina. 

As a now cooperating police informant, Grigoli told the PM of the District Anti-Mafia Directorate of Palermo that between 1999 and 2006 he was given envelopes filled with money by Becchina which were to be delivered to Vincenzo Panicola, the husband of Matteo Messina Denaro's sister Patrizia Messina Denaro.  But Becchina's mafia influence doesn't apparently stop at trafficking of antiquities and aiding and abetting a mobster on the run. 

An article written in today’s La Repubblica by journalist Salvo Palazzolo, reports that during a 2001 Carabinieri TPC wiretap into Becchina’s role in the illicit trafficking of antiquities, law enforcement authorities overheard conversations between Becchina and Santo Sacco, a former UIL trade unionist and city councillor for Castelvetrano, who was later sentenced for mafia association.

In police transcripts of those conversations Becchina implicated himself as being involved in vote fixing in support of the election campaign of Giuseppe Marinello, from the People of Freedom party, who, at the time, was running for a seat in the Chamber of Deputies representing Sciacca in Sicily.  In their conversation Sacco also boasted about his role in the campaign of Ludovico Corrao saying "But I fully carried inside an iron bell ... I'm not kidding, 6,400 votes..."  Both incidences clearly show the impact of organized crime on parliamentary elections in Sicily.

In a mysterious wrinkle to this story, ex senator Corrao was later the victim of a gruesome murder. In 2011 his throat was found cut with a kitchen knife, nearly decapitating his head, both wrists had been slashed and he was left in a bloody pool having apparently also been bludgeoned with a statuette. After the slaughter, Seiful Islam, a Bangladeshi servant, called the police and confessed to the murder.  Islam later attempted suicide while in custody and was found not guilty by reason of unsound mind and transferred to a psychiatric facility.

Illicit trafficking,
money laundering,
influence peddling,
vote fixing,
arson,
murder.

Organized crime is detrimental not just to art, but to the functioning of a society.

By:  Lynda Albertson

September 25, 2017

Stealing from the past is destroying the future.

Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) & Director-General of the UN Office in Vienna (UNOV) reminds collectors during the UN General Assembly - to look more closely at their antiquities purchases to ensure they are not contributing to the destruction of world heritage sites or funding organized crime.




July 26, 2016

Illicit Antiquities Trafficking an Ongoing, Organized Enterprise in Italy

This week, in the town of Teano, 30 kilometres northwest of Caserta on the road to Rome from Naples, the Carabinieri formally placed under investigation four individuals under suspicion of having committed a series of thefts “of historical interest” and then selling their stash onward via the illegal market.  In layman's English, the men were arrested for trafficking illicit antiquities and laundering them on via middlemen on to wealthy buyers.   The archaeological areas of Teano-Calvi have long been massacred for decades by tomb raiders without scruples.


One of those arrested was Emilio Autieri, a 65 year old registered nurse with Italy's Local Health Authority Service (Azienda Sanitaria Locale, ASL) which proves that even with a decent state pension, individuals can be coaxed into a world of illicit crime where money flows freely and behind closed doors.   He and 22 year old Antonia Pane have been placed under house arrest pending further investigation.   Massimo Aversano, 43 and 19 year old Domenico De Biasio have been released on their own recognizance with reporting conditions and restrictions to not leave the territorial area.

The investigation began in January 2016 following a not-publicized theft from the Archaeological Museum of Teano.  The case serves as a good example into the minds of criminals who receive, possess, conceal, store, barter, and sell, not just antiquity, but any goods, wares, or merchandise where there is a willing buyer willing to look the other way.

Following months of observation and chasing leads on various burglaries at private residences and shops, the Teano carabinieri conducted a series of wire taps and reviewed CCTV footage related to various burglaries.  This in turn lead them to execute search warrants which uncovered what appears to be a well structured group of organized criminals who moved objects via fences working in the archaeological sector who had a supply of buyers willing to turn a blind eye to the illicit origin of the pieces they purchased. 

During the July sting operation, authorities recovered and sequestered more than 200 historical objects; antiquities which initial examination appears to date from from as early as the 9th and 8th Century BCE to as late as the 1st and 2nd century CE. Law enforcement has estimated the value of the seizure to have a combined value of €500,000.00 on the illicit market. 

The objects  brought into police custody include various sculptures in terracotta, ivory carvings, marble architectural elements, terracotta amphorae, as well as Bucchero pottery, common in pre-Roman Italy.  The team also had a stash of votive statues, and various metal and stone objects, buckles, brooches and earrings.  Interestingly, authorities also seized stolen objects not of an archaeological nature.  This shows that the ring of thieves and fences, did not restrict their dealings to stolen goods solely from antiquity. 


Earlier, in March of this year, a well-respected surgeon, Domenico Bova from nearby Sessa Aurunca and Gerardo Mastrostefano, an attorney from the same town as this weeks arrests, were investigated for their own related involvement to this offence and receiving stolen archaeological goods after 33 ancient finds were confiscated from their individual residences. Along with them an unnamed fence was reportedly involved as the ring's middleman.  The investigation into these prior individuals coupled with this week's formal charging of four others seem to lend credibility that the zone continues to have weaknesses that in the past have made it well adapted to the trafficking of culture.

In January 2014 an ex capo and former Camorrista of the Casalesi clan turned justice informant, Carmine Schiavone, stated that the Camorra had infiltrated the cities of Teano, Vairano, Caianello and other areas in Alto Caserta.   Schiavone, prior to his death was a former member of the Casalesi clan from Casal di Principe in the province of Caserta between Naples and Salerno and a cousin of former Camorra superboss Francesco Schiavone.  Heavily entrenched in the clan's business, he could be considered a person well informed as to the illicit activities in the region.

Is this summer's heritage crime case localized to one small group of organized bandits or part of something more sinister?







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

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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

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

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