The 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.
Customs Officials seize coins at Kalotina
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.
Bulgarian police recover over 2000 looted items near northern town of Shumen.
Italy Returns Thousands of Looted Coins to Bulgaria
“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.
Over 10,000 Coins Stolen from Veliko Tarnovo Museum
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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