Bulgarian authorities swoop on tycoon and his ‘ill-gained’ artefacts
Sofia — Public quarrels between politicians and rich businessmen over alleged links to organised crime are hardly new, especially in a country ranked among the most corrupt in Europe.
The case of Vasil Bozhkov in Bulgaria, though, has captured the national imagination because it cuts to the heart of the Balkan country’s heritage.
The gambling tycoon amassed a trove of more than 3,000 archaeological artefacts said to be dating from 4,000BC to the sixth century. While their value is unknown, Bozhkov has said he was once offered €600m for just part of the antiquities collection by an unnamed country building a new museum.
Bulgarian authorities raided Bozhkov’s offices in January and raised seven charges against him, including attempted bribery and leading an organised crime group involved in money laundering. Chief prosecutor Ivan Geshev said on February 2 that Bozhkov had been detained in the United Arab Emirates and his office was preparing a request for his extradition. Bozhkov denies all wrongdoing.
None of the charges is directly related to his collection of antiquities but the authorities are poring over every item. Now the question many Bulgarians are asking is what will happen to them?
The collection, parts of which have been exhibited in Brussels, Bonn and Moscow as well as at home in Sofia, is stored in his private museum at the offices of his Nove AD Holding company in the Bulgarian capital. Bozhkov and his Thrace Foundation, named after the ancient region that makes up parts of modern-day Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey, accused the authorities of trying to confiscate the objects. Prosecutors denied that, though they said the antiquities were now included in the broader investigation into Bozhkov’s affairs.
“We’ll check everything about Vasil Bozhkov’s artefacts — from the documents of acquisition, to their nature and whether they are of exclusive value to the state,” culture minister Boil Banov told reporters on February 7. Laboratory tests across Europe may be needed, he said.
Bozhkov built his fortune from stakes in gambling, sports betting and lottery companies. His businesses in the past have also included road construction, insurance, banking and real estate. He said none of the charges against him have been proven.
In an interview he gave to private television channel BTV on January 30, he said he was afraid to come back to Bulgaria where he could be arrested. The businessman has also accused the Bulgarian state of trying to take over his lottery business. Legislators approved amendments on February 7 that allow only the state-owned company to run the lottery.
Handling of the pieces
The Thrace Foundation says it has all the necessary documentation for the antiquities and is concerned the collection will get damaged or fall into the wrong hands. It has notified Unesco that the collection is endangered, it said in a statement on February 7. The handling of the pieces doesn’t befit a member of the EU like Bulgaria, it said. The foundation said the authorities illegally attempted to confiscate some of the works in plastic bags during the raid of Nove AD Holding’s offices, an act it described as “barbaric”. “We won’t allow the transportation of any object in a bag, a cardboard box or in any way differing from the international standards,” it said.
The first Bulgarian kingdom included large swathes of Thrace, previously home to a group of ancient tribes known for their craftsmanship. Bozhkov’s treasures include weapons, household utensils and sculptures. He also has one of the world’s biggest private collections of rhytons, comprising about 20 of the horn-shaped ceremonial mugs made from silver and gold.
Some were shown in Bulgaria when the country hosted the EU’s rotating presidency two years ago, such as a golden wreath with laurel branches and a silver rhyton with a goat-like ending and a depiction of the death of Orpheus, both from the fourth century BC.
In 2017, Bozhkov bought a 13,400m² building in central Sofia to exhibit his artefacts, which his foundation said are of “tremendous scientific and cultural value”. In the meantime, a joint inquiry by prosecutors and the culture ministry is under way over the collection’s registration, origins and the way the pieces were acquired. The process will take about two months, the prosecutor’s office said. Banov, the culture minister, said his team is busy making an inventory of the collection. Parts of it may be moved to the National Museum of History.
“Most probably a part of this collection — I hope it’s not the greater part — is acquired, dug out, stolen from the Bulgarian land,” Geshev, the chief prosecutor, said. He said he suspects many were acquired illegally, something Bozhkov and his foundation vehemently deny. “It is property of the Bulgarian people,” said Geshev. “And a part of Bulgarian history.”