Nov 7 (Reuters) - An exhibition of artefacts rescued from black marketeers in Bulgaria opened to the public at Sofia’s archaeological museum on Wednesday, part of an effort to raise awareness of the threat that trafficking poses to the country’s cultural heritage.
Standing among glass cases holding ancient helmets and weapons, Greek and Roman statues and gold jewellery, museum director Lyudmil Vagalinski said the public was unaware of the scale of the theft of Bulgaria’s archaeological riches. “We want to show the public a small amount of what we lose each year as culture, as history and money from unrealised cultural tourism, because unfortunately treasure hunting in Bulgaria has grown to monstrous dimensions” Vagalinski said.
Situated at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, the area now known as Bulgaria was fought over and at various times ruled by Thracian tribes, Persians, Celts, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and eventually Bulgars, a warrior tribe from central Asia.
It changed hands repeatedly in the Middle Ages between the Bulgarian and Byzantine empires, finally coming under Ottoman rule until it gained independence in the late 19th century.
Bulgaria’s tumultuous history created a vast trove of relics left by its different rulers over thousands of years. Black-market traffickers are now plundering those artefacts.
Law enforcement data suggest up to 30,000 people are actively involved in trafficking artefacts in Bulgaria, the country’s police chief inspector, Angel Papalezov, told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday before the exhibition opened.
More than 100 pre-trial proceedings are begun every year for illegally excavating and trading artefacts from Bulgaria, according to statistics from the country’s interior ministry.
Spanish police on Monday announced they had seized tens of thousands of genuine and forged artefacts, including coins, rings and other archaeological finds, mostly from Bulgaria.
Last month, nine people were arrested in various Spanish cities and another four in Bulgaria in a joint operation by the two countries, Spanish police said in a statement.
Those arrested are suspected of belonging to a criminal organisation involved in trafficking artefacts and money-laundering, the statement said. Police believe the artefacts were being sold through online auction websites to collectors. (Reporting by Lewis Macdonald, editing by Larry King)