Bulgaria busts international antiquities trafficking ring
Bulgaria has seized more than 2000 ancient and medieval objects during two major operations against an international crime group trafficking in antiquities.
The State Agency for National Security (SANS) announced the two recent operations on January 30, two days after European police agency Europol said that 35 individuals had been arrested and 2289 cultural artefacts seized, in an international operation supported by Europol to prevent the theft and trafficking of European cultural property.
Europol’s January 28 statement said that European law enforcement authorities in 14 countries had carried out Operation Aureus, which culminated in a week-long coordinated action to prevent the further looting, theft and illicit trafficking of cultural artefacts.
The European police agency said that the 14 countries were Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain and the United Kingdom.
The statement by Bulgaria’s SANS on January 30 said that in the period from November 26 2014 to January 26 2015, there had been two major operations by SANS against the illegal trafficking of antiquities.
It said that the operations were against an international organised crime group involving Bulgarian and foreign citizens that sought out and acquired various archeological objects and other objects of cultural value that were sent abroad illegally.
SANS said that search-and-seizure operations had been carried out in 11 cities in Bulgaria at 36 addresses.
Investigators seized more than 2000 ancient and medieval objects and coins from various eras and various objects, all meant to be protected by the Cultural Heritage Act.
These included rare Thracian weapons, Thracian horse-riding decorations, antique pottery, bronze and precious metal, ceramics and glass, various types of jewellery – bracelets and earrings, rings with precious and semi-precious stones, brooches, bronze appliques, bronze and pottery figurines of people and animals, ancient and medieval seals, sets of antique surgical instruments, pieces of marble, Roman votive sticks, antique metal containers with ornate decorations in gold and silver, Christian crosses and icons.
The agency said that many of the antiquities had extremely high material as well as cultural and historical value, and some were unique specimens.
Also seized were numerous metal detectors, including specific geo-radar systems for the precise study of layers of earth, devices for cleaning artifacts, scales, auction house catalogues, specialist literature, invoices related to trade and trafficking in items of cultural value.
The agency said that it had found and documented production facilities and facilities for the production of specialist equipment for the needs of the organised crime group. Numerous computers and electronic communication devices used by the group were seized, SANS said.
SANS said that it had inspected one of the largest private museums, owned by a business person identified only by his initials in the agency’s media statement.
The January 28 Europol statement said that Europe has a significant historical, artistic and culture heritage, which organised criminals groups are keen to exploit.
European law enforcement authorities had organised Operation Aureus in response, which Europol described as a week-long co-ordinated action.
As part of the action week, law enforcement authorities carried out checks on 6244 individuals, 8222 vehicles, 27 vessels, as well as 2352 inspections at antique and art dealers, auction houses and second-hand outlets.
Checks were also stepped up at airports, land borders and ports, while information campaigns warned travellers about purchasing such objects.
Specialised law enforcement units also performed checks on websites and online outlets suspected of selling cultural artefacts.
Speaking at a news conference on January 28, the Director-General of Guardia Civil and the General Director of the Spanish ministry of cultural affairs confirmed that Spanish authorities had arrested five individuals, searched four properties and seized 36 Egyptian archaeological artefacts with a total value of between 200 000 and 300 000 euro.
In addition mobile phones and various cash currency was confiscated, including 10 000 euro, during an action week which took place from November 17-23 2014. The operation was named Hieratica in Spain and was initiated by the Spanish Guardia Civil and the police of Cyprus.
Christian Jechoutek, Assistant Director at Europol, said that Europol had supported Operation Aureus, which was part of the EU operational action plan against organised property crime, by conducting preparatory coordination meetings for the action, facilitating information exchange and providing intelligence to the participating countries.
To support investigators on the spot, an experienced analyst, connected to Europol databases, was sent to the Guardia Civil command centre in Madrid.
The operation initiated 38 new investigations, with more expected.
The operation’s development was also supported by Interpol, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the cultural authorities of the participating countries: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Spain, United Kingdom.