Saturday, December 22, 2007

"Private Collectors" of Thracian art denying cultural history to the world

This kind of article just breaks my heart to think of all of the beautiful artifacts just stored and jealously hoarded by a single collector.

According to a new study conducted by the Bulgarian Center for the Study of Democracy, as many as 250,000 people may be involved in illegal racketeering. Some are even brazen enough to put their pieces on show. The most controversial is casino king Vassil Bozhkov, 51, nicknamed "The Skull", who, in addition to countless gambling houses in Sofia, also runs the popular betting agency Eurofootball. He has already survived one assassination attempt, while one of his closest business partners was killed by a gunman.

In his private life, the millionaire indulges in a very specialized passion: He has collected hundreds of Roman, Greek and Thracian works of art and his coin collection is one of the most extensive in the country.

To coincide with Bulgaria's admission into the EU, Bozhkov was invited to exhibit a number of examples of his collection in the EU Parliament in Brussels; he even obtained funding for the exhibition from the Bulgarian Culture Ministry. In the eyes of Vassil Nikolov, the Bozhkov exhibition was "the fruit of grave-robbing." Nikolov was not only the long-time director of the Institute of Archaeology and Museum in Sofia, but was also president of the state committee responsible for every single archaeological dig that took place in the country. Without his signature, not even the smallest shovelful of historical earth could be moved -- or at least not officially.

But unofficially is a different story: "There is not a single dig site or historical monument in the country," says Nikolov, "that has never been looted."

"The looters have the most up-to-date technology and good off-road vehicles. They are very mobile and extremely well informed," says Sofian archaeologist Nikolai Markov. "Our rivals are certainly no amateurs and their modus operandi points to criminal gangs at work."

Volodia Velkov heads a 30-person specialist unit responsible for the fight against the organized robbery and trafficking of archaeological treasures. "In the area surrounding ancient settlements, local crews are hired for a few Lev to dig up whatever's there. It's a well-paid job for anyone who would otherwise be living in poverty," explains Velkov. Anything they find is then given to middlemen who try to get the valuable booty across the border as quickly as possible.

Velkov says that most buyers of the ancient treasures are abroad, for instance in Germany or Austria. According to German investigators, a battery of shady antique dealers who also deal in stolen goods from the Balkans has set up shop in Munich in recent years. Bulgaria, even more than Italy or Greece, is currently the most important supplier of valuable artifacts from the ancient world, says Neil Brodie, Research Director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Center in Cambridge, England.

Bulgarian experts have even on occasion discovered suspected stolen goods in the catalogs of international auction houses. Last year, for example, Christie's in London had a rare Byzantine silver bowl from the 12th century, richly decorated with striking hunting motifs, on sale. The piece was valued at $645,000. "