Wednesday, 1 April 2009

"Bulgarian Antiquities" - The Oddest Thing

An ebay seller from Southern California calling himself "the oddest thing" who deals in antiquities (see below) has this to say about how he began collecting ancient artefacts:

My interest in antiquities began in 1966-68 when I served as a Navy Journalist aboard the USS SPRINGFIELD (CLG-7) homeported in Villefranche-Sur-Mer on the southern coast of France. I bought coins and artifacts from coin dealers and antique shops in every country surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.
Perhaps export restrictions for these portable antiquities were bypassed in a US military man's kitbag? I am sure there are lots of cases where they have been.

I am more interested in the guy's bare-faced challenge to the intellect and literacy of his potential customers. This is part of what he says in almost all of his auctions at the moment:

To answer my most frequently asked questions: I am a collector. I sell so I can collect. I buy large lots of unsorted artifacts from a group of Bulgarian treasure-hunters working several sites in the Balkans. They don't keep track of where individual artifacts are found so there is no precise provenance, and they don't provide Certificates of Authenticity. Neither do I. So far, after two years the variety has been endless! What I don't keep for my collection, I sell on eBay so I can afford my hobby. Currently, Bulgarian law does not define treasure-hunting as a crime, as there are regions in the country where treasure-hunting is recognized as a way to make ends meet. (Search Bulgarian Antiquities) The laws are slowly changing and I know this "Bulgarian Bonanza" could end anytime, so I'm buying all I can...while I can!
No-questions-asked, a nod's-as-good-as-a-wink eh? No provenances, no vouching for authenticity. Simple, and its all above board, why, do an Internet search. Well, it is true that if one searches for "Bulgarian Antiquities" the first hits are sites concerning churches and monasteries and so on, so perhaps a portable antiquity collector with a short attention span may not notice anything else. Nevertheless there is a lot of information in the Internet about the looting of portable antiquities from archaeological sites in Bulgaria and who is doing it, why and who for. There is more than enough information available just a mouse-click away that (despite what the seller bare-facedly declares), it is indeed illegal to dig up archaeological objects from sites in Bulgaria without an excavation permit. It is certainly illegal to export it to Southern California without an export permit. There is also easy access to the information that much of the digging for and trade in these objects is organized by organized criminal groups. The potential eBay buyer able to put two and two together will realise that unless the items are accompanied by proper documentation, it is only self delusion that to a large degree the money which they are paying no-questions-asked to eBay and other dealers in their own country for these items is not going back to finance organized crime groups.

But the bottom is coming out of this market. It would seem that the "productive sites" of many regions of the Balkans which have been intensively exploited by metal detectorists as a source of "collectables" have been drying up as anyone with half a brain cell would realise they would. The accessible parts of the archaeological record are a finite resource and one easily damaged. Despite what some may wish us to think, we cannot go on taking away from it and expect it to go on "producing" collectables indefinitely. For the past two years or so most of the dealers offering finds "from the Balkans" have their offerings bulked out by fakes of metallic "minor" portable antiquities and ancient coins, some teeth-gratingly obvious, others quite subtle. Some are copies of real archaeological artefacts, some are total fantasies, items the like of which have never come from properly-investigated archaeological contexts. The latter are a total falsification of the historical record, giving the collector who "studies the past" through these unprovenanced items a false picture. Some of these pieces of retro-metalcraft are skillfully patinated (though not as skillfully as the chinese forgeries) others have a desultory attempt at a dirt-and-green patina and others are sold as having been "cleaned - ready to wear".

When he started trading (I think a year ago rather than the two he claims) this dealer had a number of objects one could give the benefit of doubt to - they looked like real looted artefacts. These days most of the items he offers as "authentic"... well, take a look at them.

The metal detector users seeking coins and artefacts to sell who are directly financed by the money which no-questions-asked (irresponsible and unthinking) collectors have been paying the dealers they supply have by now managed to irreversibly destroy a substantial part of the archaeological record of the Balkans region. This has occurred to such a degree that it is now profitable to cast fake bronze (and where do they get the non-ferrous raw material from?) items and then apply various processes to them to make them look ancient. This is labour and resource intensive, nor is it easy. The prevalence of these items on the European and US markets is a sure sign that the "productive" sites of the Balkans are no longer as cost-effective to quarry for collectables as they were a decade ago. That means their archaeological evidence has also been severely damaged, if not pretty effectively destroyed.
Photo: USS Foreign Antiquities Seeker

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