NGO Convicted of Treasure Hunting Receives EU Funds to Rewrite Laws in Its Favor

Dimitar Stoyanov

The government of Bulgaria has given nearly BGN 90,000 from the European Union (EU) “Good Governance” Program to the “Bulgarian National Federation of Metal Detection”, whose members regularly face the blows of the law on illegal treasure hunting. With this money, the non-governmental organization (NGO) must fill the “lack of a regulatory framework that leads to unjust criminalization of the metal detecting activity; makes it difficult for traders and metal detector manufacturers to practice their business and harms the interests of the State in protecting the cultural heritage of the country”. In other words – to prepare the liberalization of the rules for the use of metal detectors. At the moment, the activity is under a licensing regime.

The value of the project is BGN 89,954.84, with the grant amounting to 100%, of which 85%, amounting to BGN 76,461.61 come from the Program and 15%, amounting to BGN 13,493.23 – from the national budget of the Republic of Bulgaria. The project should be completed by June 18, 2020.

A lot has been written over the years about the “Bulgarian National Federation of Metal Detection”. Its name has been mentioned often, including in legal treasure hunting claims against its members. On top of that, the convicted have invoked their membership in the organization to justify their criminal acts. For example, in its judgment No. 374 of December 18, 2013, in criminal case No. 1174/2013 against the individual S. N. S., the Supreme Court of Cassation notes:

The defendant unjustifiably criticized the appeal body for failing to discuss in a “correct way” his membership in a non-profit association (the Bulgarian National Federation of Metal Detection). The association is designed to promote the metal-detecting hobby in society as a means of physical and spiritual growth (see Article 5 (1) of the Statute, paragraph 11 of the Constitution) and does not grant more rights than the Law on Cultural Heritage mandates for the protection of cultural values and the duty of all citizens to obey this law.

Several similar illegal treasure hunting sentences have been issued in Bulgaria against members of the Federation. There have also been prosecutions abroad. One of the founders of the organization – Nikolai Georgiev Nikolov, from the Bulgarian city of Lovech, has been prosecuted in Hungary. In 2013, the press office of the Ministry of Interior listed Nikolov and another person – Nikolai Zhelev, from the same city – as traffickers of antiques, after which they were detained on the border between Hungary and Austria.

“The men have been captured while attempting to illegally traffic around 10,000 ancient coins, objects and other cultural values. In the course of the investigation, it has been found that the antiquities originated in Bulgaria and have been acquired as a result of illegal archaeological excavations. According to experts, the value of the seized assets amounts to about EUR 150,000,” the Ministry of Interior reported then.

Because of this, and a few other “incidents” with members of the Federation, its reputation is not at all thriving. It is as logical to fund the “Bulgarian National Federation for Metal Detection” with EU resources to create legislation for the preservation of culture as it is to finance a pedophile organization to write a new Child Protection Act, say experts in archeology and museum workers, with whom Bivol has consulted.

The EU funding has alarmed even the Ministry of Culture, which has sent a letter to the Council of Ministers in early February. It raises concerns about one of the activities envisaged in the project of the “Bulgarian National Federation for Metal Detection” and its possible execution not in line with the legal procedures.

In an official response to Bivol, the “Good Governance” Program says that the documents of the organization had been perfect. The contract with the “Bulgarian National Federation of Metal Detection” had been concluded as a result of Procedure BG05SFOP001-2.009 for the selection of project proposals entitled “Increasing Civic Participation in Processes of Formulation and Implementation and Monitoring of Policies and Legislation”. A total of 211 project proposals had been submitted under the financial mechanism, out of which 118 had been proposed for funding. No circumstances which constituted an obstacle for the conclusion of an administrative contract had been established for the “Bulgarian National Federation of Metal Detecting”, and said contract had been concluded on December 19, 2018, “Good Governance” explains, adding that in case an irregularity is detected, the actions envisaged in the existing legislation will be undertaken.

The main question is whether an organization with such a reputation, suspected of organized illegal treasure hunting, should write legislation on cultural heritage? The opinion of the archaeologists and the museum workers is clear: the financing of the organization is either a huge mistake committed by government clerks or a new stage in the relations between the State and the currently outlawed hunters of antiquities and treasures.

Bivol also sought the position of the “Bulgarian National Federation of Metal Detection” from its Chairman Ilyia Iliev, who is jokingly calling himself the “chief of the treasure hunters”.

We are designated as the “black sheep”

Asked about the investigations abroad against members of his organization, Iliev told Bivol that the case against Nikolov in Hungary had ended in his favor. The seized antiquities had been returned to him because he had proved that he had them legally, and the Hungarian State had covered the costs of the trial. The only remaining claims of the Hungarian Prosecutor’s Office involve just 70 coins owned by Zhelev.

Iliya Iliev says that the Federation has received European funding because they have been advised during the application process by a consultancy firm and have succeeded at once. “The financial side does not matter to us at all,” the man is categorical. The aim of the NGO had been to find and analyze “good European practices” in metal detecting. Round tables are also planned with the involvement of the police and the Prosecutor’s Office – the same prosecutors whom members of the Federation regularly face in the courtroom.

“We may be the black sheep and they may be washing their hands of this, but at one point we have to sit down and see what rules should be created to be respected,” says Iliev.

In its program, the Federation also stresses the need for a regulatory framework for the use of metal detectors. However, a similar framework is mentioned in the Cultural Heritage Act. According to Iliev, there are rules, but only in the “deliberate search for cultural values”. In its use for civilian purposes, however, metal detectors are mainly used to find scrap.

Iliev further points out that not every archaeological find is a “cultural value”. The bulk material of coins, rings, fragments, etc. should not be considered as a value because it does not represent such. Irrespective of Iliev’s opinion, however, this “bulk material” is a “cultural value” in the meaning of the Bulgarian law.

In other words, the “Good Governance” Program had not financed the filling of legislative loopholes but amendments to the existing legislation. Already upon its adoption, the Cultural Heritage Act was declared lobbyist and serving large collectors. Nevertheless, changing specific local legislation exceeds the objectives of “Good Governance”.

The “Bulgarian National Federation of Metal Detection” says its main problem is communicating with museums. “When we find something and show it to a museum, we want to have an adequate response by the museum workers and the government. This thing, if it is valuable, then pay the person that has discovered it some 20-30% of the value, but to be tied to market value.”

Dura Lex…

However, under the law, the search for archaeological sites (finds) is done only after permission by the Field Council to the Minister of Culture, and with technical means registered by the same Ministry and everything else is a crime under Article 277a of the Penal Code.

The law is categorical – who, without the appropriate permission, seeks archaeological sites, shall be punished by imprisonment of up to five years. Any person without the appropriate permission carrying out or commissioning field excavations, geophysical or underwater surveys or under the statutory order shall carry out excavation works on the territory of immovable cultural property or in its security zone shall be punished by imprisonment of up to six years and a fine of between BGN 2,000 and BGN 20,000. If the aforementioned acts involve the use of technical means or motor vehicles, the punishment shall be imprisonment of one to six years and a fine of between BGN 5,000 and BGN 50,000.

Experts point out that although the Federation claims that they are hunting for archeological finds at unregistered sites, they do not actually know which sites are registered and which are not because the map of the known archaeological sites is not accessible. Court rules show that most of the Federation’s members have been convicted for treasure hunting within archaeological sites or their security zones. Different court panels have assumed that any removal of an archaeological find outside the archaeological structures results in damage to the site and loss of historical evidence.

However, Iliev does not accept the accusations of organized treasure hunting.

“Without clear and precise rules, everyone is a treasure hunter, all collectors are criminals, all numismatists are criminals. But, big collectors “preserve” the cultural heritage. After all, who are the guilty ones? The treasure hunters are always guilty. Someone takes European money for a conservation project, does nothing, and when the inspection arrives, they say “the treasure hunters have gone through it overnight and have destroyed everything.” That’s what’s happening. They pass us as a ball! All over the place…”

Whatever they say, always follow the money.

Iliev sees a serious problem in the secondary laws that regulate the relations between the State and the discoverers of antiquities who wish to surrender them. “According to the regulations of the Culture Ministry, a person voluntarily surrendering a find bearing the signs of cultural value may be given once up to BGN 5,000, without the price being in line with the market value of the thing,” says Iliev.

The President of the Federation is adamant that most of Bulgaria’s great treasures, exhibited in museums, have been found by accident. “The Panagyurishte Treasure, if anyone finds it now and delivers it voluntarily to a museum, they will get BGN 5,000. Just as gold value, its price is BGN 400,000 on the stock exchange? Is there a guy that stupid to hand such thing over for BGN 5,000? What happens in such cases? The discoverer seeks a collector, dealer or will try to take it out of the country. He can even melt to avoid trouble. Where is the State’s interest? Where is the State on the market? Our State is nowhere to be found!

In fact, the Ordinance states that museums can pay up to BGN 5,000 per item, not for a find including many objects. According to the current Ordinance, the State could pay BGN 45,000 for something like the Panagyurishte Treasure. This provision allows museum directors to show “flexibility” and act at the edge of the law in order to purchase one or another artifact. The State is not on the market for newly discovered artifacts, but by law such a market should not exist because such objects are exclusive State property. However, what is really happening in Bulgaria differs from the ideas of the legislators, and part of the museum workers are also convinced that the current regulation had been designed to stimulate the black market of antiquities.

Around the globe and back at home

Iliev complained that he had not been met with understanding when offering to a museum to purchase his finds. He had faced refusals, which according to him are a crime, even calling for a prison sentence. He also refers to Britain’s policies, but this is a country where antiquities rarely originate. “In Western Europe, they go and show to the museum what they have found because they know that whatever they bring will be appreciated and paid for.”

Iliev is part of the European Centre for Metal Detecting. Its Secretary is among the discoverers of one of the largest Iron Age coins in Europe ever. The discovery took place on the island of Jersey in the English Channel and is valued at over GBP 10 million. In the United Kingdom, the authorities are keeping the exact location of the find secret to prevent an influx of treasure hunters, relying on finding more coins and objects in the area.

According to media publications, the metal detector enthusiasts had found the massive hoard of ancient coins after searching the site for more than 30 years. After locating the find, they called in local historians to help them excavate the site and they slowly unearthed thousands more coins.

In recent history in Bulgaria, there are several of discoveries of large coin hoards, however, there is no case where the treasure hunters have called in museum workers to excavate the location and preserve the historical wealth.



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