A huge U.S. market for Bulgarian antiquities

The United States continues to be a major market for antiquities, especially those from the Greek and Roman world and particularly for coins. It is difficult to quantify the flow of goods in an illicit market. Nonetheless, a handful of important recent studies show how the US market for antiquities of Bulgarian origin remains strong.

In 2010, and in New York City alone, over $133 million worth of antiquities were sold at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The second highest year of recorded sales was 2007 when sales reached $55 million. It is believed that the recent era of economic uncertainty has contributed to this massive growth in auction house antiquities sales. Indeed, American investment advisors are now recommending the purchase of antiquities. These include advisors from such mainstream media outlets as CNBC, Time Magazine, the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal are now recommending the purchase of antiquities.

As the selection of news reports listed above makes clear, looters in Bulgaria are eager to meet the international demand for antiquities with material from their country. How much of this material is bound for the United States? Some recent border seizures, especially of coins, provide strong evidence for large quantities of fresh Bulgarian antiquities entering the United States.

Bulgarian artifacts seized from looters
Interior Ministry of Tourism
Materials seized from looters

In an important study of the material and intellectual consequences of the trade in unprovenanced coins, it was reported that in 2002 one individual shipped approximately one ton of coins (ca. 340,000 individual coins) from Bulgaria to the US through Frankfurt. The same study mentions another seizure which occurred in 2006 in which the Bulgarian police unit for combating organized crime intercepted a smuggled shipment of approximately 14,000 coins bound for the U.S. on a train from Sofia to Vienna. These reports highlight two facts: 1) there are well-travelled illegal shipping routes through which archaeological materials from Bulgaria are brought to the U.S. for sale; 2) coins constitute a substantial proportion of this trade.