Museum Security Network

Italy returns smuggled monuments to Bulgaria

Four years ago at an international numismatic display in Verona, Italy, a specialized police unit working for the protection of cultural heritage, checked four Bulgarian nationals selling antiques. They came from Knezja and Lovech, Northern Bulgaria.

“The Italian police found that they did not have any papers confirming ownership of antique coins and items, arrested them and then released them,” explains Bozhidar Dimitrov, director of the National Museum of History. “Soon Italians and Bulgarians joined forces and worked together for 4 years. Bulgarian expert Nikolay Markov prepared an expertise for the monuments, and other Bulgarian professionals established that their land of origin is Bulgaria. As a result, the Italian specialized bodies handed the items over to us after a relatively short period of time – four years. Mind you that similar cases involving other European countries usually take up to 15 years to complete. As far as Bulgaria is concerned, this is a happy precedent for the last 20 years, highlighting the usefulness of this country’s EU membership”.

2201 items have been handed over from Italy. They were deposited in the Museum of History on 24 February. The antique objects – coins, rings, bracelets, amulets and pots – are made of silver, bronze, copper, ceramics and bone. There are items that have been originally donated to temples: like for example, a cute Cupid riding a rooster.

“This is indeed, a fascinating figurine,” explains archeologist Nikolay Markov. “This is a very rare object. It offers supreme quality and style making it a valuable monument from the time of the Roman domination of the Bulgarian lands. The items have been owned by tomb looters. The earliest objects are two axes. One of them is dated to the 5th millennium BC. The most recent ones such as rings and coins date back to the 18 and 19 c. Usually, tomb looters are only interested in antiques of substantial market value, while the rest is mercilessly destroyed in the way”.

One example for this is a sophisticated bronze handle. Had it been found during archeological digs, the archeologists would have unearthed the whole vessel. However, the tomb looters saw that the vessel was in a deplorable shape and would need loads of cash to restore, so they picked up only parts that would sell fast and profitably. In this way Bulgaria has been losing its monuments for years. The Italian police found some 30,000 euros in the two Bulgarian family couples arrested for the smuggling. This suggests that they might have already sold monuments, including gold items. Those charged with illicit trade in antiques are faced with up to 10 years of imprisonment and with hefty fines. Was it easy to prove the origin of the monuments returned by Italy?

“In this particular case the case was resolved easily, given that many of the intercepted coins came from well-known mints scattered across the Bulgarian lands,” Nikolay Markov says. “Even within the vast Roman Empire such bronze coins had only limited circulation. They could not possibly travel away from the present-day Bulgarian lands.”

Two cases in the central lobby of the National Museum of History will be used to display the monuments. Captions will specify that they have been recovered thanks to the cooperation of Italian authorities. Special diplomas of grateful acknowledgement have been sent to the Italian policemen involved in the operation.

Written by Veneta Pavlova
English version by Daniela Konstantinova

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