Sunday, 28 September 2008

Three pounds of Somebody Else’s History in Pieces


Ebay seller Danny Harris “empiredanny ”of Rocky Hills Drive Cordova,TN 38018, United States invites us:
Please visit my store [...]. I have fibulas, lock tumblers, spear and arrow heads, bracelets, medical or sacrificial instruments, Provincial and Imperial Roman coins, finger rings, Celtic proto money, and various unique, one of a kind, artifacts. I try to maintain over 1000 items in my store so you will have a good selection”.
Hmm. He currently also has four bulk lots of mostly metal artefacts sold by weight, like potatoes, two on eBay “3 POUND LOT Roman / Medieval ANCIENT ARTIFACTS” 300262285534 and another similar bulk lot 300261796660 and another two here and here, all four with a starting price of 99 dollars. The photos shows typical groups of “partifacts” such as are found by metal detecting on Roman and medieval sites in Europe and adjacent areas. The seller states openly that he has “many pounds of these artifacts available […] and more of these auctions in my ebay store at the same price for 3 pounds of items”. Where do all these apparently ancient artefacts come from? The seller frankly admits to the potential purchaser:
In Bulgaria, there are artifact searchers that search with metal detectors every day that weather is permitting. They search around Vidin, Bulgaria and the surrounding area. They find all sorts of items from over 20 centuries of rich Bulgarian history. They find complete great artifacts many times. I have many of these listed in my store. They also find many pieces of artifacts that have less of a value. My supplier, who purchases these items directly from the persons that find them, has been saving these types of items for over 5 years. I have purchased over 2000 pounds of these items. I will be selling these in small lots over the next year or so on a weekly basis. These lots have been searched thru to attempt to pull out any items that are less than a couple of hundred years old. The items are mostly metal, mostly bronze with good patinas. These lots contain many ancient items including Celtic, Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Medieval periods.
The US seller’s “2000 pounds” is just over 907 kilogrammes of archaeological artefacts with a total retail price of 66000 dollars. One wonders how many collectors buying this material are at all interested in how this stuff got to the US. I wonder how many assume they are from from legal exploitation of Bulgaria’s archaeological record and by legal export (no mention is made in any of the descriptions of the material for sale of any export licence). Few serious collectors can fail to be aware that the archaeological record of Bulgaria is suffering greatly from looting of many of the country's archaeological sites. I wonder how many of Mr Harris’ customers will have stumbled across Diana Simeonova’s article from April 5, 2006 “Looting and Smuggling Ravage Bulgaria's Cultural Heritage Sites” which refers directly to the scale of the looting around Vidin itself.
Treasure-hunting has become a profession in Archar, in north-western Bulgaria, where the 1,500 inhabitants, like many others around the country, earn their living by digging up and selling precious finds from the buried Roman settlement of Ratsiaria. "Treasure-hunting has gone wild since the state went bankrupt in 1989 (with the fall of communism). Police were downsized and demotivated while looters got literature, catalogues and modern scanning equipment," Bozhidar Dimitrov, director of the National Historical Museum in Sofia, told AFP. "It is the whole village that is digging out there […] 99 percent of the mostly gypsy population is unemployed," Antoaneta Nikolaeva, an expert at the History Museum in the nearby town of Vidin, said. […] Treasure-hunting fever broke out in 2000, locals told AFP. At night bulldozers combed the area around the village as people sifted dirt for precious objects. […] Six years later the area around Archar resembles the surface of the Moon, with furtive silhouettes disappearing at the sight of approaching cars. […] Some 300 cases have been filed against looters at the Vidin regional court alone but due to slow and inadequate legislature few sentences have been given out, court data show. Out of 15,000 ancient burial mounds in Bulgaria, dated between the 4th century B.C. and the 3rd century A.D., two-thirds have already been ravished and precious archeological data lost forever, Dimitrov said. "Digging is usually followed by smuggling abroad […] Vienna, Munich, Frankfurt and auction houses in Italy and Britain are major centers for trading Bulgarian antiques”, Dimitrov said.
A similar picture is presented by other newspaper articles such as Malcolm Moore’s Tomb raiders strip Bulgaria of its treasures (Daily Telegraph 29 Aug 2007 - the Byzantine plate mentioned is discussed in the Looting matters blog). The sale of even the scrappiest of scraps left over after middlemen and dealers have been cherry-picking the bulk lots bought from the artefact hunters seems an ample pointed to the collectors' market being the main motor of the digging. The collectors who buy this stuff no-questions-asked thus providing a market for hundreds of kilograms of it are responsible for the looting as much as the looters themselves. While it is nice of the Tennessee dealer to admit to the buyer where actually the material comes from, I suspect he does so in full knowledge that this is not in the least bit foolhardy not to mention in the next breath that he has all the required paperwork to make these items licit. Firstly he is unlikely to have any problems with US authorities, after all as these dealers all say, "no US law was broken". Neither do I think he is at all worried that US collectors who buy these "pieces of the past" will lose any sleep over buying artefacts looted from the Bulgarian archaeological record by Gypsies and crooks. Nor are they over-concerned probably that the trade and smuggling of antiquities (both real and fake) out of Bulgaria is in the hands of organized crime. As Malcolm Moore reports:
many of the digs are organised by the local mafia. Volodia Velkov, the head of the police unit that combats organised crime, said tomb-raiding was now generating about £4 billion a year for the crime syndicates [...] "Since last October, when we started the new department, we have seized 16,000 artefacts," he said. "More than 30,000 people are involved in tomb-raiding. The business is very well-organized and the expeditions are financed by rich Bulgarians living in the US, Britain and Germany [...] The main [smuggling] route is through Germany, where there are huge warehouses full of our antiquities," said Mr Velkov."
The recent report "Organized Crime in Bulgaria: Markets and Trends" (pp 172-198) places antiquities smuggling alongside drug and human trafficing, vehicle theft and other similarly dubious business opportunities. One wonders about the identity of this "supplier" whom Mr Harris deals with who "purchases these items directly from the persons that find them". Are these really the people his buyers are sure they want to be putting money in the pockets of? Should not any buyer of portable antiquities be concerned that the things they buy do not come from the "huge warehouses" full of looted Bulgarian antiquities by asking the supplier to show verifiable documentation of their legal origin and export?

4 comments:

samarkeolog said...

I appreciate that you drew your comment from Antoaneta Nikolaeva's statement that, '"It is the whole village that is digging out there. They have no other way of earning a living as 99 percent of the mostly gypsy population is unemployed.... Imagine you hold by the hand your hungry, barefoot child and you know that you are walking on gold. Would you not dig?" she said a gypsy looter told her recently.'

Don't you think it would have been a little fairer and more tactful to talk of something like "artefacts looted... by poverty-stricken villagers and crooks" instead? It is, after all, not because they are Gypsies, but because they are poor, that they loot.

Paul Barford said...

Thanks for your comment, but I’m not really sure of your point. In what way would it be “fairer” to manipulate what somebody else on the ground had said? That’s just plain nuts.

If you follow the arguments, the dealers buying the stuff (especially in the USA) argue along the lines of “if the Bulgarian people wants to defy the oppressive rules and regulations of their government and sell us the stuff, we should encourage their free enterprise by buying it”. This takes on a totally new significance when we learn that the archaeological heritage of the region is being destroyed for commercial gain by an “other” rather than the autochthonous population. In this region US dealers are not buying looted material from autochthonous Bulgarians self-determining the fate of their own archaeological heritage but the robbing activities of a resentful and intrusive population. This is a well-known mechanism associated with population shifts which operated in the past and is still occurring to day.

In any case, what is the problem with collectors being aware of precisely who they are buying these unprovenanced artefacts from?

Virpi said...

Are you aware that writing stuff like this might well be considered slander in courts, as you single out an individual man without any solid proof?

Paul Barford said...

Possibly more aware of the law (and definition of "slander") than you are. The solid proof is that this seller was documented offering items that he states were dug up in Bulgaria (which has laws about such things) and exported from there (where there are laws about such things) and does not utter a word to his buyers about having the proper paperwork to hand. Are those the facts or not?

And just for reference, "Empire Danny" is still on eBay selling dugup antiquities, now he's shifted to "Lake Ladoga Viking" artefacts... https://www.ebay.com/usr/empiredanny where there are exactly the same problems (or would be if they really do come from Ladoga)

 
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