Trafficking of Ancient Roman statues from the Middle East has gotten a Bulgarian and a Turk a suspended sentence in Bulgaria. Photo: Interior Ministry Press Center
By Ivan Dikov / 01.08.2017
A Bulgarian and a Turkish citizen have confessed their guilt in the smuggling of dozens of Ancient Roman artifacts, and possibly a Sumerian slab, after their arrest in a police operation almost two years ago generated international interest.
A total of 19 impressive artifacts originating in Asia Minor / the Middle East were confiscated from treasure hunters and antique traffickers in Shumen, Novi Pazar, and Ivanovo, Northeast Bulgaria, back in March 2015.
Most of them were found in a garage owned by a local man, Petar Danchev, 60. A Turkish man, Veysel Sanli (52) was also arrested in the treasure hunting and antiques trafficking case.
The authenticity of 18 out of the 19 artifacts which are Ancient Roman statues and architectural fragments was confirmed in August 2015 by Assoc. Prof. Dr. Zdravko Dimitrov from the National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, an expert in Roman archaeology.
However, since Bulgaria technically has no archaeologists specializing in Ancient Mesopotamia, the authenticity of what is allegedly a Sumerian slab from the 3rd-2nd millennium BC has not been established for sure, and the artifact may be a fake.
Even though the initial police reports spoke of more suspects, Denchev and Sanli have been the only two people to be charged over the bust which became known as “the garage Louvre” case in Bulgarian media.
Both men have made deals with the Shumen District Prosecutor’s Office which have been confirmed by the Shumen District Court, reports the Trud daily.
Both are getting away with suspended sentences, with their testimonies providing no additional information regarding the origin of the trafficked artifacts or their destination.
Garage owner Danchev has been sentenced to a year of probation for providing a place for keeping illegal cultural artifacts as per Bulgaria’s Cultural Heritage Act.
He will be meeting with a parole officer twice a week for a year, and has agreed to pay BGN 660 (app. EUR 330) in court charges.
Turkish citizen Veysel Sanli, who has been identified as the owner of the smuggled Ancient Roman artifacts, has received a two-year suspended sentence, a BGN 3,000 (app. EUR 1,500) fine, and confiscation of BGN 1,500 (app. EUR 750).
According to the report, during the investigation, Sanli claimed that all seized artifacts were “heavy stones, modern-day replicas”.
The Middle Eastern Roman artifacts as they were discovered in a treasure hunter’s garage in Bulgaria’s Shumen in 2015. Photo: Interior Ministry Press Center
The 18 Middle Eastern Ancient Roman artifacts and the alleged Sumerian slab have now been formally confiscated by the Bulgarian government. It is still unknown whether they will be added to the collection of the Shumen Regional Museum of History which was quick to claim them shortly after the police operation in March 2015.
Based on his examination of the Roman items – marble statue fragments, gravestones, and sarcophagi, archaeologist Zdravko Dimitrov concluded that they originated in Asia Minor and the Middle East, possibly in countries such as Turkey, Syria, and Iraq.
They probably came from different locations but are all examples of supreme Roman stonework craftsmanship, and are dated to no later than the 2nd century AD.
Dimitrov found the items had traces of soil and limestone residue meaning they had been extracted from their original spots, and had not been stolen from museums, for example, by traffickers from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as some originally suggested.
The authenticity of the alleged 5,000-year-old Ancient Sumerian slab still remains uncertain. Photo: Interior Ministry Press Center
The supposedly Ancient Sumerian slab seized from the traffickers is probably yet to be examined
Bulgarian archaeologist Nikolay Ovcharov believes the Sumerian relief to be authentic, and has even likened it to the Sumerian relief of the king of the Sumerian city of Lagash Ur-Nanshe (also known as Ur-Nina), the first king of the First Dynasty of Lagash (around 2500 BC), which is kept in the Louvre Museum in Paris. However, none of the Bulgarian archaeologists is a specialist in the archaeology of Ancient Mesopotamia.
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.
An estimate made in November 2014 by the Forum Association, a NGO, suggests its annual turnover amounts to BGN 500 million (app. EUR 260 million), and estimates of the number of those involved range from about 5 000 to 200 000 – 300 000, the vast majority of whom are impoverished low-level diggers.
According to an estimate by Assoc. Prof. Konstantin Dochev, head of the Veliko Tarnovo Office of the Sofia-based National Institute and Museum of Archaeology, up to USD 1 billion worth of archaeological artifacts might be smuggled out of Bulgaria annually.
One of the most compelling reports in international media on Bulgaria’s treasure hunting plight is the 2009 documentary of Dateline on Australia’s SBS TV entitled “Plundering the Past” (in whose making a member of the ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com participated). Focusing on the fate of the Ancient Roman colony Ratiaria in Northwest Bulgaria, the film makes it clear that treasure hunting destruction happens all over the country on a daily basis.