Friday, 30 October 2009

Archaeology’s losing fight in Bulgaria

Collectors of dugup archaeological finds have been following with interest recect developments in Bulgarian cultural heritage protection legislation. The interest is especially strong in the USA - not surprisingly as the US is one of the largest markets for illicitly excavated and smuggled archaeological artefacts (that in coins being particularly lucrative) from that country. Before "discussing" the legislation, US collectors have been very unwilling to access any sources of direct information (such as those given here). Speculation about what has been happening in the "source country" for the items in many a transatlantic collection has been rife and entered collecting folklore. A recent article in English by Alex Bivol in the Sofia Echo ("Archaeology's losing fight") is therefore to be welcomed and may help linguistically-challenged collectors outside central Europe understand what has been happening.

Bulgaria has long been in need of a new legislative framework to protect its archaeological heritage. Much has inevitably been damaged by increased revelopment over the past two decades, coupled with dwindling funding of the cultural sector in general, not to mention two decades of large-scale illegal treasure hunting on known (and theoretically legally protected) archaeological sites to produce commodities for the expanding black market in such items. The old law regulating the treatment of the cultural heritage was four decades old and had been written in entirely different social conditions. A new law was thus proposed in 2006 and was sponsored by a group of MPs spearheaded by Nina Chilova, then culture and tourism minister, and Ognyan Gerdjikov, then speaker of Parliament. From the beginning its creation it aroused strong opposition which caused long delays to the legislative process. The bill was intended to regulate arriving at a balance between the state’s goal of preserving Bulgaria’s cultural heritage and the private interests of art collectors. Although advice was sought from many quarters, including archaeologists, at the very first public discussion of the bill, in April 2006, various voices were being raised (including from archaeologists and museum directors) that because it was treating a rich variety of different areas of Bulgaria's cultural heritage together, the draft bill lacked any coherent direction, did not have clear-cut legal definitions and raised more new questions than it answered. Sadly it appears that law-makers were unable to take these criticisms on board and the resultant text still has these faults.

The resultant Cultural Heritage Act (2009) was a compromise that satisfied nobody. Collectors said it was too restrictive and many archaeologists said it was too lax for the purposes of protecting the archaeological heritage. Those faced with administering its provisions noted that the resultant text was chaotic, blurry and with provisions that were mutually contradictory.

In common with many European heritage laws, Bulgaria's old laws declared all cultural property to be state property, anyone holding it was, in effect, merely its curator. The new laws allowed such items to be treated as private property, provided the holder of any artwork or antiques (and antiquities) could prove their ownership and gave them a specific period of time in which to do this. There are probably many undeclared collections of art works and antiquities in Bulgaria, one of the aims of the present law was to inventorise what resources remained within the country in private hands as well as public collections. Another concern is that “at least some secret collections were accumulated to launder money and would eventually be sold legally, provided that the law allows for the unrestricted sale of artwork”. Collectors however were strongly opposed to having to demonstrate that they had obtained their collectables by legal channels, and this provision would become the defining battleground between the law’s supporters and its detractors. The future of the Act is now in limbo after Constitutional Court judges ruled that a number of provisions in the law concerning this were unconstitutional and must be amended.
A major shortcoming in tha law in its present form is that it does not clearly define what constitutes a collection or a collectors. According to the law’s article 108, "a collection is an aggregate of movable culturally valuable items, which in their entirety and thematic coherence have a scientific and cultural value". Two more articles in the law identify a collector as the holder or owner of such a collection and require collectors to maintain a register and hold certificates for all their artwork.As critics pointed out, does that mean that an individual with a couple of paintings or half a dozen old coins is a collector? Furthermore, how would one prove ownership of such items, as the law requires? The provision, meant to track down and seize collections that were built through illicit means, would pose equal difficulties for legitimate small-time collectors that accumulated their artwork over time through legal means, but did not have the paperwork to prove this, the law’s detractors said.The law said that items whose origin collectors could not prove would become state property, while the collectors themselves would be categorised as "holders" of said items. To prove ownership, collectors needed a document from a state institution – such as a court decision or customs declaration proving that the item had been brought into the country. Collectors could not cite an expired statute of limitations to dispense with the requirement to provide proof, the law said.
A bill of amendments was put forward by Bulgaria’s new ruling party Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria (abbreviated as GERB in Bulgarian), meant to relax the requirements, allowing any document to suffice as proof, including simple purchase contracts.Before that amendment could be voted into law, however, the Constitutional Court ruled that such limitations breached the right to own private property, since Bulgaria has not had a system to issue paperwork proving the origin of artwork or antiques, therefore their holders had no way of presenting such documents. The court also ruled that the lawmakers were wrong to dismiss the statute of limitations as a valid exemption from the requirement to provide proof of ownership.Bulgarian media described the court’s decision as a victory for big collectors, who were seen as the main force lobbying in favour of dropping the proof requirements and allowing a statute of limitations dispensation. Their opponents say that, having been built during a period when any sale of antiques was forbidden, the collections are clearly illegal.The ruling, announced on September 29, means that the law would have to be amended again to fill the voids created by striking out the provisions declared as unconstitutional, MPs and lawyers said. Four and a half years after a cultural heritage bill was presented, the process does not appear to be over.

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