he borders of the Republic of Bulgaria contain some of the most unique and vulnerable cultural resources in Europe. In addition to the numerous Neolithic, Chalcolithic and Bronze Age settlement mounds of the Hamangia, Vinca, Varna, and Ezero cultures, there are significant remains of Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine urban centers. Perhaps most notable among Bulgarian antiquities are the remains of the Thracians, a powerful warrior kingdom conquered only by Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire. The best known Thracian remains in Bulgaria are tombs and burial mounds which contain stunning gold and silver work.

Bulgaria’s archeological heritage is significant and at the early stages of investigation. Over the past two decades, since the fall of the Iron Curtain, large-scale, well-published archeological work has resumed in Bulgaria. What has been revealed thus far is the deep importance of this region both in the development of the Balkan Peninsula in the prehistoric period and in its location at the periphery of the dynamic and multi-cultural Hellenistic and Roman spheres.

Research on the heritage of Bulgaria is today an important aspect of Bulgarian cultural advancement as well as important for the development of a tourist industry in the future. Although it has experienced rapid economic growth in recent years, Bulgaria’s per capita income levels remain among the lowest within the European Union. At the same time, the international market for antiquities has grown exponentially, and this encourages massive looting of sites. This combination makes the undiscovered archeological riches within the borders of Bulgaria particularly vulnerable. Below is a selection of recorded incidents of looting that have taken place in Bulgaria over the past several years. It is this type of activity that feeds the illicit antiquities market.

September 2011
The Bulgarian Customs Agency caught smugglers at the Turkish border with a statue of a Roman goddess or a female aristocrat

August 2011
Bulgarian Antiquities Police Bust Illegal Antiquities Storage

June 2011
Canadian authorities returned to Bulgaria 21,000 antiquities illicitly trafficked into the country

May 2011
Two are arrested overnight when caught digging Thracian burial mound.

March 2011
Customs Officials seize coins at Kalotina

December 2010
Bulgarian police halt illegal antique trade and illegal archeological digs in the area of the ancient city of Nove

November 2010
Bulgarian Police Bust Illegal Medieval Coin Auction

Bulgarian police bust antiquities ring in the western town of Kyustendil and two nearby villages, capturing 999 silver rhyton, a number of decorated ancient artifacts with images including statuettes, knives, bronze lamps, pottery vessels, rings, and 74 ancient coins from different time periods.

October 2010
Bulgarian police arrest a crime group trafficking in illicit archaeological finds, including a 2-meter marble statue of Aphrodite.

September 2010
Bulgarian police seize 3000 looted coins in the southern city of Yambol.

Ring of antiquities looters arrested

Bulgarian police recovered around 380 antique artifacts after a search in private homes in Sofia and a village nearby Vratsa, detaining five persons under suspicion of illegal treasure hunting.

November 2010
Bulgarian police recover over 2000 looted items near northern town of Shumen.

A local businessman in Bulgaria’s central town of Kazanlak is being searched for after he dug up the central town garden in an attempt to find ancient gold.

October 2009
A professor from the city of Ruse has been charged with leading an organized crime group for illegal treasure hunting.

September 2009
Three treasure hunters where caught with archaeological items in the western Bulgarian town of Bobovdol

Plundering the Past

March 2009
Italy has returned 2201 historical treasures to Bulgaria’s National Historical Museum, that were smuggled from Bulgaria

July 2009
“Treasure Hunting is a National Tragedy for Bulgaria”

Between 30 000 and 33 000 people are involved in the looting of Bulgaria’s cultural heritage.

January 2009
Italy Returns Thousands of Looted Coins to Bulgaria

July 2008
Over 300 antique objects were seized at a police raid in the home of a 57-year-old citizen of Bulgaria’s Gorna Oryahovitsa

June 2008
An expose on Bulgarian illicit antiquities is published outlining connections to international organized crime.

February 2008
The Bulgarian Directorate for Combating Organized Crime captured a group of 19 treasure-hunters who carried out illegal archeological excavations and sold antiquities.

December 2007
“There is not a single dig or site or historical monument in the country that has never been looted” says Vassil Nikolov, Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Museum of Sofia.

October 2007
Bulgaria’s special police unit combating organized crime busted Thursday a channel for smuggling antiques in five Bulgarian cities seizing antiquities valued at several million dollars.

August 2007
Since October of 2006, 00 artifacts have been seized from looters in Bulgaria reports the Daily Telegraph.

An overview of Looting in Bulgaria

April 2007
A British national is seized at Varna airport after an attempt to smuggle 54 ancient coins dating from the 4th to 2nd century BC.

March 2007
Nine silver philae recently acquired by Greek Museums are sought by the Bulgarian government with evidence from the looters who found them in Bulgaria.

December 2006
National Geographic Magazine calls Bulgaria the El Dorado for looters of ancient sites.

February 2006
Over 10,000 Coins Stolen from Veliko Tarnovo Museum

October 2004
Customs officers at Bulgaria’s Malko Tarnovo checkpoint have busted the illegal export of 23 antiquities included eight Roman, Hellenic and Byzantine coins made of silver and copper, as well as a bronze latch depicting a lion’s head, a bronze mace, and ceramic tobacco pipes.

 As the media reports makes clear, looting in Bulgaria now takes place on a massive scale. This was not always the case. Before the 1990’s, while Bulgaria was a part of the Eastern Bloc, looting was harshly punished and therefore limited. At the same time, there were only  a limited number of archeological investigations in Bulgaria and nearly all were published in Russian or Bulgarian which severely restricted international knowledge of them. However, with the opening of Bulgaria to the West in the late 1990’s, looting began and far outpaced scientific excavation. An important synthetic study of organized crime in Bulgaria, conducted in 2007 by the Center for the Study of Democracy, found that  in the late 1990’s mafia-like gangs began to pillage archeological sites systematically and sell finds on the illicit antiquities market. The effect of this has been that over the past twenty years undiscovered archeological remains in Bulgaria have seldom been carefully studied, but rather destroyed in the hunt for loot. Precious information about the ancient cultures of Bulgaria is being destroyed.

What can be learned when Bulgaria’s cultural heritage is carefully studied and preserved? This question might be asked about the material culture of the Thracians, whose ancient kingdom is largely encompassed by the modern borders of Bulgaria. Little is know about the Thracians despite their fame in antiquity for being such a fierce and wealthy people. One thing that we do know about the Thracians is the very fine quality of  their metal work, especially in gold and silver, the raw materials for which were mined from the foothills of the Balkan mountain ranges. It was only in 2009 that a largely unplundered Thracian settlement site dating to the 6th-5th century BC was discovered. Because of the widespread destruction of Thracian sites, this one excavation is our only evidence for how a entire people lived, worked, worshiped, and made and used metal. Imagine how rich our knowledge of the Thracians would be if all of their settlement and tomb sites could be carefully excavated.

Or, one can look to the case of the Karanovo Settlement Mound located in the Maritsa valley in south central Bulgaria [Vasil Mikov, “Selishtinata Mogila do s. Karanovo (ova Zagora ok). The Settlement Mound Near Village Karanovo, Zagora District].  Discovered in 1936, it is the largest settlement mound in Europe. [Izvestija na. Bulgarskoto Geographsko Druzhestvo,. No. V (1938):157-173.] The scientific excavations there established the Karanovo chronological system which is used as the standard in the dating of prehistoric Balkan cultures. We will never know what other destroyed settlement mounds might have told us about the development of European prehistory.

The United States continues to be a major market for antiquities, especially those from the Greek and Roman world and particularly for coins. It is difficult to quantify the flow of goods in an illicit market. Nonetheless, a handful of important recent studies show how the U.S. market for antiquities of Bulgarian origin remains strong.

In 2010 in New York City alone, over $133 million worth of antiquities were sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The second highest year of recorded sales was 2007 when sales reached $55 million. It is believed that the recent era of economic uncertainty has contributed to this massive growth in auction house antiquities sales. Indeed, American investment advisors are now recommending the purchase of antiquities. These include advisors from such mainstream media outlets as CNBC, Time Magazine, the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal are now recommending the purchase of antiquities.

As the selection of news reports listed above makes clear, looters in Bulgaria are eager to meet the international demand for antiquities with material from their country. How much of this material is bound for the United States? Some recent border seizures, especially of coins, provide strong evidence for large quantities of fresh Bulgarian antiquities entering the United States.

Bulgarian artifacts seized from looters

Materials seized from looters (Interior Ministry of Tourism)

In an important study of the material and intellectual consequences of the trade in unprovenanced coins, it was reported that in 2002 one individual shipped approximately one ton of coins (ca. 340,000 individual coins) from Bulgaria to the U.S. through Frankfurt. The same study mentions another seizure which occurred in 2006 in which the Bulgarian police unit for combating organized crime intercepted a smuggled shipment of approximately 14,000 coins bound for the U.S. on a train from Sofia to Vienna. These reports highlight two facts: 1) there are well-travelled illegal shipping routes through which archeological materials from Bulgaria are brought to the U.S. for sale; 2) coins constitute a substantial proportion of this trade.

 Bulgaria is a state party to the 1954 Hague Convention and Protocol as well as to the 1999 Hague Protocol. It is also a state party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export or Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property as well as to the 1972 World Heritage Convention Concerning the Protection of World Culture and Natural Heritage, the 1992 European Convention for the Protection of Architectural Heritage and other international and regional instruments. Bulgarian national legislation includes the 1999 Protection and Development of Culture Act as well a the 2009 Cultural Heritage Act.

In Bulgaria, the enforcement of cultural heritage laws is carried out by the Unit for Combating the Traffic of Cultural and Historical items under the jurisdiction of the Unit for Combating Organized Crime (GDBOP). Since 2006, the GDBOP has made combating antiquities looters and smugglers a priority and has launched a variety of projects. For instance, in 2010 the GDBOP instituted an amnesty program under which people in possession of illicit antiquities could turn them in to Bulgarian authorities and not be prosecuted for their theft.

In order to preserve their heritage, the government of the Republic of Bulgaria requested a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the United States [Docket No. DOS-2011-0115] to restrict imports of archeological and ethnological material from Bulgaria dating from the Neolithic Period (7500 B.C.) through the nineteenth century A.D. This request was a substantial step toward enabling the U.S. government to help stop the looting of archeological sites and cultural monuments in Bulgaria. The MOU was signed on January 14, 2014.

For more information about CPAC, please visit the U.S. State Department International Cultural Property Protection web site.

zBulgariaflyerDownload this flyer to spread the word

First, SAFE provided information on our website about Bulgaria’s request for a bilateral agreement to restrict importation of certain categories of antiquities into the U.S. and the reasons why it should be granted. A petition was started and gained more than 400 signatures. We also created and distributed a flyer to raise awareness about the request. 

We at SAFE feel strongly that the best way to understand cultural and historical objects of Bulgaria is within their archeological, architectural, and historical contexts, scientifically examined and professionally preserved. Please help us to protect Bulgaria’s heritage.

Bulgaria’s request for US assistance to protect its cultural heritage was granted in on January 14, 2014 with the signing on a bilateral agreement. These statements are taken from more than 400 petition signatures SAFE gathered online via change.org:

I am concerned with the preservation of archaeological and historical heritage.  It is the antiquity market that stimulates illicit digging and smuggling. –  Maya Vassileva

I agree to the urgent need to stop the rampant looting of Bulgarian antiquities and to combat the existing predatory and mercantile attitudes towards it. Furthermore, I support any initiative that fosters civic responsibility and public concern for Bulgarian cultural heritage. – Adela Sobotkova

Bulgaria has a unique cultural heritage that needs to be protected.  Illegal excavation and smuggling endanger this heritage and destroy irreplaceable knowledge about the past. – Lynn E. Roller

The United States is a state party of the 1970 UNESCO Convention and should do its part to prevent the illicit trade in antiquities from other state’s parties(irrespective of article 9).  As per article 3.  What is happening now under everyone’s noses on the US antiquities market, in which artifacts removed from archaeological sites in Bulgaria have figured prominently) fills me with disgust. It is well past time for the United States to step in and do something about this.  – Paul Barford

Cultural antiquities are our collective human heritage and best seen in the context of their places of origin and not, as imperialism has done over the past couple of centuries, decapitated as trophies displayed in compartmentalized alien settings. Such greed is savage, stupid, and at the root of our planet’s recent traumas. – Dr. J. Stanley-Baker

Bulgaria must be protected against the looting of its cultural heritage; implementing a bilateral agreement will help. – Elizabeth Simpson

Bulgaria is a cradle of the European civilization. It allows people from the whole over the world to come here and see it, not just visit it in the museums in their own countries. – Plamen Petkov

The reason is very sustainable … I would like my children to know and be able to see parts of the Bulgarian history, because I believe there are a lot of different archaeological, architectural and historic parts that could be seen. – Gergana Dimitrova

My voice against the destruction of irreplaceable and unique cultural heritage in Bulgaria. Fight the looting and smuggling of cultural property. – D W

I have visited Bulgaria, formerly a Greek and then Roman province, and it is rich in antiquites. Their archaeological service does its best to protect and preserve its antiquities. The U.S. should cooperate with Bulgaria to preserve its rich heritage. – Lucille Roussin

We must do our best to help Bulgaria preserve and maintain its archaeological sites and artifacts. – Anthony Johnson

How can I tell my children some day and the next generation that I’ve let our history be taken out of our country, for someone’s profit? We have a unique cultural heritage combining mixtures of so many cultures over a long period of time. It’s worth protecting. We’re trying to become a touristic  from formerly agricultural country, and then we let our tourist-summoning heritage be stolen away? That’s just dumb! Isn’t our culture and economy suffering enough already? – Kalina Atanasova

Bulgaria is an unique part of the world that should be preserved. We are proud of our historical past and want to preserve our cultural heritage. – Kamelia Yotova

The US is a state party of the 1970 UNESCO Convention and should do its part to prevent the illicit trade in antiquities from other states parties (irrespective of article 9). As per article 3. What is happening now under everyone’s noses on the US antiquities market (in which artefacts removed from archaeological sites in Bulgaria have figured prominently) fills me with disgust. It is well past time for the US to step in and do something about this. – Paul Barford

In a Bulgarian mound, archeologists have found perhaps Europe's earliest massive fortifications