Monday, April 28, 2008

The Illicit Antiquities Trade in Bulgaria

Anyone who studies the trade in classical antiquities knows that the Balkan countries supply much of the 'fresh' material on the market today. Last week, in preparation for a lecture, I was doing some more research on the coin trade and happened across this interesting publication on the internet, Organized Crime in Bulgaria: Markets and Trends, which was published by the Center for the Study of Democracy in 2007. At approximately 200 pages this document addresses many illicit trades in Bulgaria, but the last chapter (pp. 177ff.) addresses the antiquities trade and also comments on the ancient coin trade in particular. The chapter on the antiquities trade is available as an individual download as well, but one would have to check the first pages whole document for citation information. The chapter, as indeed does the entire document, makes occasional allusions to the involvement of some corrupt politicians in the antiquities trade and makes some interesting observations on trade networks and practices. In my opinion, it makes for a very interesting read and perhaps I'll have some more comments in the future.

While we're on the subject of the destruction of Bulgaria's cultural heritage to supply the inventories of European and American dealers, it is worth mentioning that Bulgaria also seems to attract tourists who travel to the country to treasure hunt while on holiday. A colleague provided me with a citation to a TZ-Online article (auf Deutsch), which talks about two German treasure hunters who were recently caught prospecting for antiquities in Bulgaria: "Zwei deutsche Schatzsucher festgenommen," TZ-Online, 24.04.08.



Nathan- I look forward to reading your blog with interest as time allows. One issue I do have, however, with your coverage of countries like Bulgaria is that there appears to be a wide divergence between what Bulgarian law may or may not say and what was and still is common practice. In particular, I know a fellow collector of Bulgarian decent who tells me that ancient coins are openly available for sale in Bulgaria. (I also presume like in many places in Europe they are widely collected there too.) I am, therefore, a bit concerned that your efforts to paint such issues in such stark black and white terms may be misplaced. If it is quite legal for Bulgarians to own and enjoy ancient coins, is it really fair to take American collectors and dealers to task from enjoying them as well? Certainly, there are no US import restrictions on coins of Bulgarian origin.

Best wishes,

Peter Tompa


Dear Peter,

Thank you for your comment and I hope you are adjusting well at the new firm.

You are correct in raising the point that there are number of collectors in Bulgaria as well and perhaps I should have been clearer about that. Indeed, the report I referenced does discuss local collections in some detail. According to the report, it seems that are a great number of illicit collections in Bulgaria itself, which are in violation of Bulgarian law. At the same time, the report does indicate there are licit ways of acquiring certain types of antiquities. However, it seems most suppliers (looters, middlemen, etc.) are more than happy to violate existing laws and some corrupt law enforcement officers or government officials are happy to look the other way, exacerbating the problem. The report also seems to indicate that the highly sophisticated systematic looting operations and the networks of smugglers operate to supply the international market while the local market is supplied by more individuals but working less systematically. Essentially what is happening is that local dealers and collectors, as well as international dealers and collectors, are disregarding the circumstances under which such coins are brought to the market, which most often occurs through the violation of multiple laws (e.g. Bulgarian, and then in violation of further laws as they are smuggled through other countries and falsely declared on customs forms as in the case of the 1999 shipments through Frankfurt). Additionally, the article states that in order for antiquities to be sold abroad legally an export license must be granted, and clearly the material we see on the market is not accompanied with such a license; the multiple seized smuggled shipments also indicate that the movers of this material aren’t interested in attempting to get permits.

Towards the end of the article there is an interesting outline of ways to diminish the large scale of looting currently taking place in that part of the world and one of the suggested schemes is a PAS-style scheme. While I personally think such a scheme might be useful and act as a deterrent for certain types of looting, we must keep in mind that the PAS scheme is not a “cure all” (see, for example, discussion here and
), those who are motivated by profit will still loot historically important sites systematically, but one great way of stopping that sort of looting would be if dealers and collectors would shun that material, which is illicitly excavated and exported.

In addition to these legal concerns, we are perhaps losing sight of one very important thing: looting, and especially systematic looting of the sort discussed here, has severe material and intellectual consequences.


Nathan- Thank you for your comments. You obviously do have a point that looting of archaeological sites is wrong and source countries like Bulgaria must address it in some way. I do also understand that Bulgaria is at least looking at a law akin to the UK Treasure Act combined with a state sponsored auction for coins the State does not want to keep for its own collections. Hopefully, there will be some movement on that as a possible alternative to the current state of affairs.

I also agree with you that people should get export permits, but sometimes this is easier said than done (even for common items). Unfortunately, Bulgaria itself has a culture of corruption left over from the Soviet bloc days that impacts not only equal enforcement of the law but the populace's respect for it in general. Hopefully, this will change over time too, particularly as Bulgaria gets more integrated with the EU. Anyway, I will try to read the report you cite when I get some time. In the interim, I wish you well in your current academic endeavors.


Peter Tompa