"Bulgaria will receive back from Italy close to 3800 antique coins and other archaeological objects, smuggled into the country in 2005, Bozhidar Dimitrov, director of the National History Museum said, quoted by Bulgarian language Sega daily on January 9 2009.
The significant part of the valuables consists of silver and bronze Roman and Byzantine coins, which experts have valued at around 35000 euro, Sega daily said.
Four Bulgarians have been detained in Verona, Italy, for trying to sell the objects. They have been deported to Bulgaria and will be tried in accordance with local legislature.
Dimitrov has said that the authorities suspect that the coins could have been smuggled out of the country by the same criminal group that committed the robbery at the Veliko Turnovo museum in February 2006.
At that time more than 10 000 golden, silver and bronze coins were stolen from the museum's numismatic fund. Among them were valuable coins dating back to the time of Alexander the Great. At the time police said that the robbery had been very well planned and that an insider might have helped."
The report is significant for a number of reasons. First of all it highlights the fact that Bulgaria continues to be a major source of ancient coins for the black market in ancient coins and antiquities and is a major supplier to indiscriminate dealers and collectors in Europe and North America. See some previous comments in my posts on "The Illicit Antiquities Trade in Bulgaria," "Der Handel mit antiken Münzen. Ausmaß and Netzwerke (The Trade in Ancient Coins: Scale and Networks)," "Archaeology Magazine's 'Under Threat' List Includes Bulgaria," and especially see my lecture "The Ancient Coin Trade in the USA: Scale and Structure" as well as Center for the Study of Democracy's 2007 report on Organized Crime in Bulgaria: Markets and Trends (Chapter 5, pp. 177-202, The Antiquities Trade - Dealers, Traffickers, and Connoisseurs). Secondly, it indicates that authorities suspect this incident may well be related to a previous robbery in which ancient coins were stolen from a Bulgarian museum, though the article from SofiaEcho does not name any specific suspects.
It is well known that Bulgaria, which forbids the unlicensed and unscientific excavation of antiquities and their export, is a major source for western markets. The report on Organized Crime in Bulgaria, cited with a link above, estimates that between 30 and 50 Bulgarian nationals living in Western Europe and the United States actively arrange for the shipment of mass quantities of these coins to market nations. Any collector, dealer, or scholar working with the ancient coin trade will also recognize that many of the bulk suppliers of ancient coins are Bulgarian. These "wholesalers" sell fresh supplies of ancient coins to both other dealers and collectors. Higher quality coins will be sold wholesale to other dealers while "cheaper" or more "common" material that is less valued by the market will be disposed of in bulk lots directly to collectors via eBay or VCoins. One commonly sees packages of a thousand or more "uncelaned coins" on places like eBay. It is not a very big secret. To some degree corruption in Bulgaria allows looters and smugglers to operate with relative impunity.
In 1999, Frankfurt customs officials intercepted a shipment of 60kg of ancient coins from Bulgaria, bound for a New York airport and ultimately to a New Jersey address, which had been falsely declared. Scholarly numismatists were called in to examine the shipment which contained about 20,000 coins. Some of the coins had been partially cleaned already and had been divided up according to their relative market value, with smaller and more common coins left dirtier. Research by these numismatists indicated that only a small fraction of this particular shipment would have sold for over €100,000 in the auction market. Investigation by Frankfurt customs officials showed that in the previous weeks and months the individual in question shipped approximately one metric ton (literally) of material through Frankfurt airport to the United States before this parcel was inspected. The individual in question is a known supplier and dealer of ancient coins in the United States.
One metric ton would be about 350,000 ancient coins. To put this in perspective the largest scholarly archive of ancient coin finds, Fundmünzen der römischen Zeit in Deutschland, only inventories around 300,000 to 350,000 coins. These inventories have been published regularly since 1960 and represents the full time work of several scholars who inventory finds from old and new excavations, casual finds, hoards, and local collections. Essentially the individual in question smuggled as much in a very short amount of time as nearly 50 years of full time work cataloguing hundreds of archaeological and historically singificant sites in Germany. But of course, gangs of metal detectorists move much more quickly than archaeologists. Even the largest public collections of ancient coins in the world (e.g. the British Museum and the American Numismatic Society) contain around c. 350,000 coins. The level of destruction represented by this one wholesaler is ghastly. The individual in question is politically connected; in 1999 he was the brother of the Bulgarian Prosecutor General - who himself later faced corruption charges - and even though he had been arrested for antiquities crimes before he was never charged in this crime. For more discussion of these shipments in 1999, see R. Dietrich, "Cultural Property on the Move - Legally, Illegally," International Journal of Cultural Property 11.2 (2002) 294-304. Dietrich's article does not name the shipper/dealer, but refers to him as "Mr. B." which I will use henceforth.
Mr. B. is a known supplier of ancient coins to other dealers and he also sells in bulk via eBay. He is still very active today. His eBay storefronts include "Silenos" (10,431 positive feedback as of 22 April 2008 - each positive feedback represents a transaction with a unique buyer, i.e. at least 10,431 different people have purchased from him via eBay) and "S*P*Q*R" (3,019 feeback as of 22 April 2008). The dealership of "Silenos Coins" is also listed as coming soon on VCoins.com.
In 1999, shortly after the shipments were coming through Frankfurt, the Moneta-L discussion list referenced his activity, with some swooning over the booty he offered them. Mere months after the Frankfurt shipments, one of Mr. B.'s friends wrote on the Moneta-L list:
There is a new source of uncleaned ancient coins and nice quality antiquities on eBay, to which I invite your attention. The "User ID" you use to do a "Seller" search on eBay is: "Silenos." This dealer is an old friend of mine, and has been wholesaling to the leading dealers in America and Europe for years, and has decided to enter the retail market on selected items. I personally vouch for the honesty and fairness of this individual. Give this company a try. You will be delighted!"
Another dealer then responds:
"Would that be [Mr. B.]?"
The friend who announced the "new source" replies to the dealer:
"Yes, but PLEASE don't advertise it. He wants to keep a low profile in dealing with the public. He is uncomfortable in doing so, and has hired a young lady to be the 'face to the public' on sales."
And then an unsuspecting collector tells us about one method this wholesaler was using to divide up the coins which were spirited out of Bulgaria in contravention to both law and ethics:
"I'd like to hear the answer to this onlist. [Mr. B.] had a booth at CICF [Chicago International Coin Fair] this year for the first time, and I had a chance to meet him. He wasn't retailing at his booth, he was selling strictly wholesale. I found myself drawn to his bags of late Roman bronze and bought them the only way I could - a handful at a time. Very pretty stuff. By mid afternoon of the second day of the show all his LRB were gone. If he is going retail, I hope he keeps one foot in the wholesale door. Maybe you can convince him he doesn't need the customer relations hassles that come with retail."
It is clear that the mass quantities of coins smuggled out of Bulgaria through Frankfurt airport to the United States by Mr. B. were sold directly to other dealers and collectors. But what does this have do with the recent announcement about the coins seized in Verona? Nothing is certain since the article by SofiaEcho does not name the individuals involved, but the report did tell us that "...the authorities suspect that the coins could have been smuggled out of the country by the same criminal group that committed the robbery at the Veliko Turnovo museum in February 2006." In addition to Dietrich's article, the above cited and linked report on Organized Crime in Bulgaria: Markets and Trends discusses the coins that Mr. B. sent through Frankfurt airport in March 1999 (but note it states his address has been in Florida for several years; this may be an error since his address at the time of the 1999 shipment was in New Jersey and appears to have been such even later). The report indicates further that Mr. B. may have been involved in the Veliko Turnovo museum case. Page 186 of the report provides a citation and states:
"The online news agency Mediapool announced that the name of [Mr. B.], who has been living in Florida for several years already, was found under an internet offer selling coins, supposedly part of those stolen in the notorious Veliko Tarnovo museum robbery."
Is Mr. B., who still acts as a supplier to other dealers and sells directly to collectors, involved with the case of the recent seizure of coins in Verona? It seems according to the report he was/is a suspect in the Veliko Tarnovo museum case and apparently authorities believe the recent seizure of coins in Verona is related.
Whatever the case, perhaps the most important question is whether or not dealers and collectors are really comfortable stocking their inventories and coin cabinets from wholesalers such as this who are brazenly violating international laws and unethically sponsoring the systematic destruction of our past and the knowledge that goes along with it. Greater concern for law, ethics, due diligence, and - above all - transparency is greatly needed.
(Photo from another news article about the return at StandArtNews, "Italy Returns Antique Tre[a]sure to Bulgaria," 22 December 2008)