Sunday 29 March 2015

Bulgarian Artefact Bust - Shumen

A trafficker's garage

'Archaeology in Bulgaria' has two recent articles about an antiquity bust which saw an 'impressive' haul of artefacts confiscated from treasure hunters and antique traffickers by the police in the northeastern Bulgarian province of Shumen (in Shumen itself, Novi Pazar, and Ivanovo as well as Veliki Preslav ) which had been destined to be trafficked to other EU states. Associated with the article are some helpful Background Infonotes:
Treasure hunting and illegal trafficking of antiques have been rampant in Bulgaria after the collapse of the communism regime in 1989 (and allegedly before that). Estimates vary but some consider this the second most profitable activity for the Bulgarian mafia after drug trafficking. One recent estimate suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are low-level impoverished diggers
The haul included Greco-Roman works from the 1st-2nd century AD (19 Ancient Greek and Roman statues and figurines, marble and stone slabs, including one engraved stone altar), and nine thousand authentic and forged ancient coins as well as matrices for the forging of ancient coins. A number of the sculptures come from grave-robbing, they are from sarcophagi. One of them is a fragment depicting the Gorgon Medusa. There was also a sculpted lion's head and an altar with the images of a family and an inscription in Ancient Greek. The items were confiscated from 51-year-old citizen of Turkey, Veisal Sanli, who had been followed by the Bulgarian police for 2 months before he was arrested. It is not clear how many of the artefacts had been dug up in Bulgaria, or how many of them had been smuggled into the country for selling on the networks established by Bulgarian-based organized criminal groups. This is still being investigated.  The investigators have not discovered evidence linking these traffickers to an organized crime group, which raises the question of their access to the markets and where they were being supplied with objects from. Some of the photos suggest the bronze artefacts are the sort of thing you meet on eBay. It is worth noting the condition of the objects:

Cruddy dugup coins in trafficker's stock
The marble slabs have traces of soil and limestone deposits [...] “Among the coins there are some that authentic, some are even in the condition in which they were found in the ground, but there are also some that have been produced recently,” explains Zhenya Zhekova, who is the head of the Department of Numismatics in the Shumen Museum, as cited by Darik Shumen. She has also mentioned that most are copper coins.
In other words, all those US coin dealers and coin collectors that swear blind that the items that are "collectable" by them and their fellows (unlike all the other dugup artefacts from the same period sold by middlemen-dealers like this) do not come from metal detecting on ancient sites are simply unaware, and/or willfully ignorant of what actually is found on raids on artefact traffickers in the source countries that supply them. The coin-exceptionalism argument is a false one. Let us note that this willful ignorance of provenance ('grounding') means that numbers of fake coins reach the market they patronise.

Psst...wanna buy some fake Iraqi loot too?
One of the two articles on the haul devotes much space to a stone slab with relief carving of figures in Sumerian/Akkadian style on it and a neatly-drilled hole in the middle. Bulgarian archaeologists (including Prof. Nikolay Ovcharov) say this is a Mesopotamian artefact smuggled by culture criminals into Bulgaria. I disagree, the photos are a bit lacking in clarity, but to my eyes this piece looks like an 'in the style of' fake, and a not very good one either. The carving is flat, the hole drilled with a power-took and shows no erosion around the edge, though the slab edges and surface do. Fake.

The problem is, I do not think it is the only one. The stone items shown in the film here look a mixed bunch to me. For a start it seems almost as if they are all (the 'Sumerian piece too) in the same type of stone except one marble foot in crystalline marble. I suspend judgement in the case of the several objects we see in the first fifty seconds of the film, I have a bad feeling about one of them. The stela at 52 seconds though, looks highly dodgy to me on this video, it looks rather too much like the scene has been copied from a book on Roman art and to me has the same flat mechanical 'feel' as the Sumerian piece which follows it in the film. I have the same reaction to the lumpy tombstone (1:26), look down the right side, that bird for example. Nasty. Then there is a very block-shaped medieval king (from a window or door jamb?), which is followed by a series of small fragments. I think there are real archaeological dugups here mixed in with antiqued modern pastiche and perhaps two pieces which might turn out to have come from post-medieval garden sculpture rather than ancient cities.   
The police arrested three men for treasure hunting on March 11, 2105, after raiding their homes and discovering the Ancient Roman artifacts. [...] After they were tipped off about illegal trafficking and ownership of cultural treasures, the Shumen police first raided the home of a 56-year-old man in the city of Shumen where they found a total of 19 Ancient Roman marble and stone slabs with inscriptions and figurines and parts of Roman statues hidden in his garage. They followed-up with a raid in the town of Novi Pazar where they found about 9,000 ancient or ancient-looking coins as well as matrixes for forging ancient coins in the home of a 52-year-old man. They also discovered ancient metal items and about 80 ancient coins in the home of a 32-year-old man in the town of Ivanovo as well as ancient coins and the head of a statue in the home of 51-year-old citizen of Turkey residing legally in the city of Shumen.
It is not clear if all of these men were involved in digging up and selling artefacts, were any of them buyers who'd had dealings with the others? Four men are mentioned, but three arrests. The articles suggest that there is a connection between the activities of these four men and the arrest of one seems to have led to the next (yes?). It is also interesting to speculate on who tipped the police off and why. To be honest, on the basis of what these articles are saying, it is difficult to accept  the local police assessment that these are just "individual treasure hunters".  Metal detectorists don't generally have huge hunks of carved stone in their garage, they do not generally have engraved dies and equipment for striking fake coins and then the chemicals to patinate them. I hope more information emerges in the future.

The IAPN and PNG (through their paid lobbyist) insisted at the time the MOU was being discussed that there is a free and open market in antiquities, including coins, within Bulgaria. Maybe then, they would like to tell us why these men were arrested.

Ivan Dikov, 'Bulgarian Police Seize Ancient Roman Archaeology Artifacts, Slab with Sumerian Motifs from Treasure Hunters' Archaeology in Bulgaria March 24th, 2015. [lots of photos]

Ivan Dikov, 'Bulgarian Archaeologist Finds 5000-Year-Old Relief from Ancient Mesopotamia among Artifacts Seized from Treasure Hunters' Archaeology in Bulgaria March 27th, 2015.

'Пресякоха канал за трафик на културно-исторически ценности в чужбина'  

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