The display cabinets of the Bulgarian National Art Gallery in Sofia are full to bursting with antique treasures. Many of them are masterpieces of antique craftsmanship: filigree leaves of the finest gold woven into a laurel wreath like those worn by the Roman Caesars; or a heavy knee-protector fashioned in silver with decorative designs in gold, printed with the wearers rank and authority, produced in the 3rd or 4th century BC.
Archaeologists, recently, have time and again uncovered treasures from Bulgarias varied history. At a dig near the central Bulgarian city of Kazanluk in the summer of 2005, a team led by the archaeologist Georgi Kitov discovered a mask of pure gold which had been worn by one of the most powerful rulers in the Thracian dynasty -- Teres, the 5th-century founder of a prosperous empire.
In mid-July, Kitov's team dug up a second gold death mask 85 kilometers east of the city of Sliven, in Bulgaria's southeast. The tomb of this Thracian ruler also held ritual vessels and valuable ceramics.
"Many of the most important civilizations settled in Bulgarian territory," says Bozhidar Dimitrov, director of the Bulgarian National Museum of History. Greeks, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Bulgars and above all the legendary Thracians, one of the most powerful peoples of the ancient world -- all of them have lived in what is now Bulgaria. "Just about every square meter of Bulgarian soil conceals valuable findings," Dimitrov enthuses. "Bulgaria is paradise for archaeologists."
But Dimitrov, Kitov and their colleagues have competition. Plunderers systematically ransack the soils in this Balkan country in search of antique coins, cast metal statues and pottery vessels. A battle has begun between raiders and scientists to be the first to find the treasures of the past.
'Criminal Gangs at Work'
"The looters have the most up-to-date technology and good off-road vehicles. They are very mobile and extremely well informed," says Sofian archaeologist Nikolai Markov. "Our rivals are certainly no amateurs and their modus operandi points to criminal gangs at work."
Volodia Velkov heads a 30-person specialist unit responsible for the fight against the organized robbery and trafficking of archaeological treasures. "In the area surrounding ancient settlements, local crews are hired for a few Lev to dig up whatevers there. Its a well-paid job for anyone who would otherwise be living in poverty," explains Velkov. Anything they find is then given to middlemen who try to get the valuable booty across the border as quickly as possible.
Velkov says that most buyers of the ancient treasures are abroad, for instance in Germany or Austria. According to German investigators, a battery of shady antique dealers who also deal in stolen goods from the Balkans has set up shop in Munich in recent years. Bulgaria, even more than Italy or Greece, is currently the most important supplier of valuable artifacts from the ancient world, says Neil Brodie, Research Director of the Illicit Antiquities Research Center in Cambridge, England.
Bulgarian experts have even on occasion discovered suspected stolen goods in the catalogs of international auction houses. Last year, for example, Christie's in London had a rare Byzantine silver bowl from the 12th century, richly decorated with striking hunting motifs, on sale. The piece was valued at €448,000 ($645,000).
International Black Market
The Bulgarian Culture Ministry demanded that the object be returned to Bulgaria and the London dealer was, as a result, unable to find a buyer. But instead of turning the disputed antique over to the authorities, it was given back to the auction house client, a private citizen who, think experts in Sofia, had presumably bought the expensive piece on the international black market. The man denies the allegations.
It was 36-year-old Naiden Blangev who called the Bulgarian authorities' attention to the sale in the first place. Blangev claims to have dug up the artifact seven years ago near the southern Bulgarian city of Pazardzhik, before selling it. He says he found the bowl using a standard metal detector -- "beginner's luck," he calls the find.
But the bowl put up for auction in London is one of 13 similar pieces, say the experts in Sofia. The set is dispersed among different countries, with nine of the silver dishes apparently in Greek museums. The authorities want all of the silver treasures back and are prepared to bring the case before the international courts, if necessary.
Meanwhile Boris Velchev, Bulgaria's energetic prosecutor general, has declared war on organized crime, particularly the lucrative trade in stolen art. Now, hardly a week goes by without his investigators uncovering yet more valuable stolen goods. Just this month, seven men were caught near Sliven with a hoard of ancient coins. In a spectacular sting on a train headed for the Serbian border, investigators succeeded in catching the gang of three trying to leave the country with thousands of antique pieces. The valuable goods were hidden in cardboard cartons full of fruit juices.
Velkovs worry is that hauls on this scale could become ever scarcer in the future. Since Bulgaria became an EU member, its borders have become more permeable, making life easier for the looters.
'The Fruit of Grave Robbing'
According to a new study conducted by the Bulgarian Center for the Study of Democracy, as many as 250,000 people may be involved in illegal racketeering. Some are even brazen enough to put their pieces on show. The most controversial is casino king Vassil Bozhkov, 51, nicknamed "The Skull", who, in addition to countless gambling houses in Sofia, also runs the popular betting agency Eurofootball. He has already survived one assassination attempt, while one of his closest business partners was killed by a gunman.
In his private life, the millionaire indulges in a very specialized passion: He has collected hundreds of Roman, Greek and Thracian works of art and his coin collection is one of the most extensive in the country.
To coincide with Bulgaria's admission into the EU, Bozhkov was invited to exhibit a number of examples of his collection in the EU Parliament in Brussels; he even obtained funding for the exhibition from the Bulgarian Culture Ministry. In the eyes of Vassil Nikolov, the Bozhkov exhibition was "the fruit of grave-robbing." Nikolov was not only the long-time director of the Institute of Archaeology and Museum in Sofia, but was also president of the state committee responsible for every single archaeological dig that took place in the country. Without his signature, not even the smallest shovelful of historical earth could be moved -- or at least not officially.
But unofficially is a different story: "There is not a single dig site or historical monument in the country," says Nikolov, "that has never been looted."