The Canadian government returned 21,000 looted ancient artifacts to Bulgaria‘s culture minister in a formal ceremony at the Canadian Museum of Civilizations in Ottawa. The objects range over 2,600 years of Bulgarian history from many different cultures — Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, etc. — that have had a presence in the region. They include jewelry, coins, belt buckles, crosses, amulets, bronze eagles and everyday items like bone sewing needles, arrows and spearheads.
Bulgarian Minister of Culture Vejdi Rashidov received the artifacts from Canada’s Heritage Minister, James Moore. Moore noted that the ceremony marked “Canada’s largest-ever return of illegally imported cultural property.” Minister Rashidov described the event as “highly emotional” and awarded the Canadian Cultural Heritage Department with the Golden Century, the highest insignia of Bulgaria’s Ministry of Culture.
It’s been a long time in coming. The first two imports of illegally excavated Bulgarian cultural property were discovered in 2007 by the Canada Border Services Agency. They were mailed from Bulgaria to an unnamed dealer who authorities believed planned to sell the artifacts on the Internet. The Border Services agents referred the confiscated objects to the Canadian Cultural Heritage Department which in turn called in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for further investigation. The Mounties kept seizing Bulgarian shipments until by November 2008, they had confiscated 21,000 coins, jewels and assorted artifacts.
No charges were filed against the importer, and he only formally abandoned the items in January of this year, thus finally clearing the way for the Court of Quebec to rule under the Cultural Property Export and Import Act that the seized artifacts should be returned to the Republic of Bulgaria.
It’s great news that such a large trove of priceless Bulgarian cultural property is on its way home, but I’m disturbed by the lack of legal repercussions here. You know who is receiving these stolen goods. You have the goods themselves in custody for three to four years, but you can’t make an arrest and instead have to wait until he lets go before you return the artifacts? That’s not much of a deterrent.
Minister Rashidov says the Bulgarian government plans a repatriation ceremony on the receiving end. Most of the artifacts will then be placed in a variety of Bulgarian museums.