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Bulgaria: Police Fight Theft Of Antiquities

Sofia, 4 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria is a land rich in archeological treasures. Cultures such as the Thracian (6th century BC), the Roman and Byzantine have left behind on the Balkan peninsula numerous artifacts of both great interest and commercial value. Many specialists believe that still undiscovered treasures from these periods and from the First and Second Bulgarian kingdoms (680-1396) make the country one of the richest hunting grounds in the world for historic artifacts.

Unfortunately, because of the artifacts' value, some people are willing to break laws designed to protect Bulgaria's archeological heritage. Colonel Cyril Radev, chief of the police branch assigned to fight organized crime (CSBOP), said recently that artifacts worth nearly $1 billion were saved last year from illegal export to the West. He cited the figure as part of a general assessment of CSBOP's work during 1998.

Treasure hunting has long been a hobby or obsession for thousands of ordinary people in towns and villages across Bulgaria. Legends are still told of fabulous treasures, found with the help of mysterious maps and dug out at night under a full moon.

But in recent years, most treasure-hunting has become less romantic. It has turned into an illegal, unscrupulous and very profitable industry utilizing organized channels for smuggling artifacts abroad. The new treasure hunters operate with scanners and highly sensitive detectors that can signal the existence of metal under several meters of soil. They use excavators, bulldozers, tractors and trucks, and are bold enough to dig even in daylight.

These modern-day treasure seekers are interested only in what makes money. With the indiscriminate use of machinery for excavating, they destroy or irreparably damage objects and whole sites that archaeologists would call priceless. In 1995, an unique Thracian burial mound near the village of Rosino was totally destroyed.

In 1985, Bulgaria's old communist regime reacted to the criminalization of treasure-hunting by creating a special department within the framework of the State Security apparatus. Later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the start of the process of radical reforms in Bulgaria, this department was transformed into what is now the CSBOP.

A source familiar with the activities of the elite unit (who asked to remain anonymous) told RFE/RL that since 1985 about 25,000 artifacts have been stopped at the border and saved from being illegally exported. Yet, according to the same source, this number is believed to be only 30 percent of what has been lost. That means that perhaps some 70,000 artifacts have been lost.

Many objects end up in auction houses in the West, where they are restored and sold at twice or three times the contraband price. Buyers are mostly collectors from Austria, Germany and Belgium.

Plundering newly discovered sites is not the only way that criminals in Bulgaria seek to get rich from antiquities. Another is theft from museums. Artifacts have been stolen from a museum near Ivailovgrad and from one in Plovdiv.

A third way criminals earn money is through forging old coins, statues and plates. Experts say that expert forgers can be found in Bulgaria.

In one case, the British Museum was reportedly ready to pay $200,000 for what it believed was a very old and very rare coin. The deal was abandoned only after Bulgarian police warned the museum that the coin was a fake.