email a friend iconprinter friendly iconBulgaria's Gold Rush
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Small pieces often land in the street bazaar in downtown Sofia, displayed on folding tables beside old typewriters, World War II medals, and Beatles albums. "It's just 50 meters from parliament," says Ovcharov in exasperation. "I've seen pieces of a Thracian chariot for sale, coins, clasps. They're not forgeries. They're all original."

Valuable pieces—the precious metals and carved stones and decorated ceramics that rise to the level of art—sometimes move quietly to the wealthy few, Bulgarian collectors who can afford to buy such things in cash, no questions asked. Rumor has it that the collectors commission looters to find things, and the looters have connections to organized crime. But these are illegal transactions involving men who are armed and dangerous, and no one has details—or is willing to share them. At least the artifacts stay in the country, and if amnesty is ever declared for collections acquired on the sly, they could be displayed in museums here for everyone to enjoy.

The darkest part of this shadowy business is the international smuggling. "The best artifacts leave Bulgaria," says Ovcharov. "Vienna. London. Zürich. Everybody knows the connections. I recently visited an antique store in Berlin that was full of Thracian artifacts.” How much plunder is leaving the country is anyone's guess, but by most estimates Bulgaria has become Europe's top exporter of illegal antiquities.

That's devastating news to a people who feel intimately connected to their ancient past. History surrounds them everywhere, since modern homogenized architecture hasn't yet slicked up their country. Under everything, everywhere, lie deep layers of history that have built up through thousands of years, and any digging hits something old. A tunnel for Sofia's subway, for instance, uncovered a section of a Roman brick wall. Now it's a mini-museum in an underground mezzanine. In this part of the world—in the Balkan States, where countries have been carved up and borders disputed so often—such visible evidence of history is important. It establishes roots, a claim to the land. Every city, every town in Bulgaria has a museum filled with artifacts excavated right there, not imported from elsewhere. And every weekend Bulgarians of every age, gender, and economic level turn out to have a look.

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