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Smugglers and Legends Complicate Fight against Antiquities Theft (Part 1)

November 16, 2005


By Christopher Deliso

Since the following interview was conducted back in June, there have been various developments in the area of the topic under consideration. However, the reader will find here a detailed and fascinating discussion of the general topic as it applies to the case of Macedonia. The second part of this story follows tomorrow.

Despite being a tiny country, Macedonia has a very rich history of diverse cultures and civilizations, dating back millennia. In fact, the observatory at Kokino — heralded by NASA as the fourth most important such site in the world.

As a fixed territory, Kokkino is staying put. But what about the millions of little things, the discovered and mostly undiscovered artifacts and other small treasures like ancient coins, jewelry, religious objects, weaponry and statues?

A Moveable Feast

Unfortunately for the country and for scholars everywhere, these represent something of a moveable feast for unscrupulous thieves and smugglers, who have over the past 15 years removed many important artifacts from Macedonian soil. There are over 4,000 known archaeological sites in Macedonia, of which approximately 130 are officially protected by law. However, most are not excavated, and doubtless there are many more waiting to be discovered.

Now the government is trying to do something about it. But as Ilce Bojcevski, Macedonia’s top cop for antiquities concedes, it’s a tough job. More often than not, the well-organized traffickers succeed, because of a lack of preventative resources- chiefly, funds — available for his staff at the CHPO (Cultural Heritage Protection Office) in Skopje. Further, a long-awaited law that would enhance investigatory practices languishes in parliamentary procedure, and is not expected to take effect until January 1, 2006.

In an interview with, Mr. Bojcevski explained the challenges facing counter-smuggling efforts, the methods used by smugglers and the areas of the country hardest hit over the past few years.

The Scrupulous West’s Secret Market

With the help of international police cooperation, his team focuses on the market abroad — the high-paying collectors whose greed gives smugglers the motivation to perform the difficult and sometimes dangerous work of re-appropriating Macedonia’s cultural heritage.

“There is a big auction market in countries like Switzerland, Austria and Germany,” says Bojcevski. “These are closed auctions- that is, open to a very few rich private collectors who know that they are bidding for stolen antiquities.”

According to him, it’s very difficult for the police and INTERPOL to find these auctions, because they are organized in secret and varying locations. “Every day we’re working with the Ministry of Interior and INTERPOL,” says Bojcevski, “but it’s difficult because the bad guys are very smart and experienced.”

According to Bojcevski, most of the thefts take place in Macedonia’s most culturally rich area- the south. Every empire that has taken root here over the centuries – the ancient Macedonian, Roman, Byzantine, medieval Bulgar and Ottoman — have had a strong presence in the south of the country. It was always a major east-west trading route; the Roman Via Egnatia passed through here.

A Trouble Spot: the Sunny Southeast

The latest “attacks,” as Bojcevski calls them, have taken place in the Dojran-Strumica areas of southeastern Macedonia. While he doesn’t know for sure how many attempted thefts are going on at any given moment, he suspects the number right now to be around 40. “Most cases involve local people with a criminal background,” he says. “They are approached by well-organized international gangs that know the real value of the goods on the closed auction market in the West.”

Since the majority of villagers in these areas work in agriculture, they are familiar with vast stretches of land far from the roads. And, since it is their job to dig in the earth anyway, in the case of finding some ancient treasures the temptation to make some money from it is often too hard to resist.

Who, aside from the local collaborators, is responsible for this trafficking? Although a mafia exists, Bojcevski states, “from what we have seen, it’s not really the big drug smugglers. But they do sometimes include some of our former “freedom fighters'” — that is, ethnic Albanian criminals who fought against the state in the 2001 war.

According to Bojcevski, the European antiquities smuggling mafia works with its smaller Macedonian counterpart, which in turn works with locals to unearth antiquities and then arrange transport. The foreign smugglers do their research beforehand in textbooks and through the input of collectors, in order to know what to search for and where they can find it.

International Collaborators and Local Offenders

Further, Bojcevski alleges, legitimate international antiquities societies are often corrupt and secretly working the illegal market. As a specific example he mentions a biannual fair for antiquities lovers, held in Belgrade’s Hotel Yugoslavia. While there are plenty of legally-procured antiquities on display, “the collectors are also using this opportunity to tell the smugglers what places in the region to “hit,’ and what treasures they want from them next.”

Macedonian authorities are working together with their Serbian counterparts to fight this problem. The two countries have signed a convention for regulating the import and export of antiquities. But the battle is difficult, because the antiquities community is a tight one and very hard to infiltrate.

This same problem occurs at home, says Bojcevski. He believes that Skopje’s few antiquities stores — publicly offering everything from gold coins of Alexander the Great to World War II paraphernalia — have “extra’ collections available to specific customers.

“While in the shops you see only legal things,” he says, “there’s always a “back room’ which is open to certain customers, where they keep the illegal artifacts.”

A Legal Impasse Prevents Antiquities Protection

Given his suspicions, why don’t the police perform sting operations on the dealers? According to Bojcevski, he can’t, because the new antiquities law has not yet come into effect. “The law is meant to enhance our investigative procedures, but unfortunately it has been stuck in Parliament since last July,” he says. “We were supposed to have it by January 1, 2005, but there were some holes- so they put it off for another year.”

According to Bojcevski, “there is huge support in the Parliament [for the law]. Only a few are against it – merely for political reasons.”

The new law will also increase the funding for the CHPO. Currently, complains Bojcevski, “we don’t even have a Jeep. How can we go off-roading, to where the important sites are, in a two-door car?”

While politicians and minister regularly promise more assistance, he claims, their support tends to be merely “decorative.’

Because of the lack of resources and blocked legislation, CHPO officers usually arrive on the scene too late — after another treasure has been stolen. “This is a real problem,” sighs Bojcevski. “We do what we can. At least with the known archaeological sites, we can hold regular inspections and make sure that things are being done properly.”

Part 2 of this article will appear tomorrow.

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