Archaeological Mafia in Macedonia ‘Greeks only buy artifacts from the time of Alexander the Great’

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From the archive an article from the Macedonian weekly magazine Fokus describing the work of “Archaeological Mafia in Macedonia. The text was published September 26, 2008 in issue 691. Title: “The Greeks only buy archaeological items from the time of Alexander the Great”.

According to Milan Ivanovski, an archaeologist who has been in the field of protecting cultural monuments and the national heritage of Macedonia for 35 years, Macedonia has been a kind of El Dorado for illegal treasure hunters and the archaeological mafia for years.

As a conservation advisor at the National Conservation Center of Macedonia, he will retire next year (note: 2009). His work experience includes for the most part his work against illegal treasure hunters and the organized archaeological mafia, which trades valuable archaeological objects from Macedonia worldwide.

An example of this is the archaeological collection of objects from Isar-Marvinci, which was confiscated from artifact dealers three years ago (note, 2005). The material reached his office through a police operation carried out on New Year’s Eve when one of the main channels for transporting such items out of Macedonia was cut off.

The entire collection was confiscated during the 2005 New Year party, and I received a call on January 2, 2005 to identify the items. These are very valuable items of the 7th and 6th centuries BC, from the site “Lisicin dol”, i.e. one of the necropolis in Isar-Marvinci, explains Milan Ivanovski, one of the most experienced experts in the field who has worked for years to discover, identify and prevent the trade in valuable archaeological objects from Macedonia by the mafia. And he continues:

The gangs involved in this work have their own network starting from local coordinators, the field workers, i.e. the hired workers who dig, and the bosses who sell, to the people who transport the objects across the border. This, of course, relates to the organization of work on the territory of Macedonia. Otherwise, usually they dig at night, whereas the site is marked precisely during the day.

Of course, such illegal excavations destroy a large part of the material, but the archaeological mafia doesn’t care what is destroyed, only what they can get out of the ground. For example, in the past, to determine the exact location of a necropolis, primitive probes made of metal rods, i.e. a kind of large drill bit, were used to reach the tombstone. As soon as the plate is reached, the workers begin their work. The mafia now has a much more sophisticated technology for recognizing a specific location, but such devices often deceive them because they react the same to a simple metal can from the First World War and a primer from Roman times, for example.

Those items that you see luckily stayed in Macedonia, but unfortunately many more were taken out of the country. In addition to the 2nd century Roman terracotta sculptures called Hyerodules, a Latin mantis insect associated with the cult of Aphrodite, bronze bracelets with a heavy necklace were confiscated that New Year’s Eve. Worn on special occasions because it is very heavy and belongs to a clergyman, then fibulae that were not intended for everyday use either, terracotta lamps, coins from Roman times and more.

Only from the Isar-Marvinci site, the Macedonian El Dorado for the search for buried treasures, over 5,000 items have been confiscated so far, and it is estimated that at least as many items have been taken out of the country. The trade of the stolen artefacts takes place through multiple hands, and the cheapest of these precious archaeological treasures from our locations is sold in Macedonia.

This is mainly due to the fear of discovery. In order to get rid of the “hot goods” as quickly as possible, the criminal treasure hunters sell them for very little money. In my experience so far, all of the material you see in front of me would sell for around 800 euros on the domestic black market.

The small traders in the network of the archaeological mafia would certainly be satisfied with this price too, because they did not invest anything in it, i.e. they bought it from the treasure hunters, maybe only for one hundred or two hundred euros. If the dealers in Macedonia have succeeded in selling this collection for 800 euros to a foreign buyer, i.e. if this is the price for the so-called first hand, then the second hand is not less than 8,000 euros.

In order to reach this amount, these precious goods must of course be transferred to one of the neighboring countries, namely Greece or Serbia, via one of the smuggling channels. The smuggling channel through Serbia leads to Europe and America, and the one in Thessaloniki is only for Greece, i.e. for the needs of the national and political strategy of our southern neighbor.

The main shopping center is located at a faculty in Thessaloniki that we discovered when we seized a shipment of very valuable artifacts from Macedonia for this market. The Greeks pay serious sums, but only for items from the Iron Age and the era of the ancient Macedonian Empire.

On the other hand, trading with Belgrade is pure business. There is no politics there. When this Isar-Marvinci collection of artefacts comes on the black market in Belgrade, the price for a third hand can go up to 60,000 euros. Now you can imagine how much money is flowing through the hands of the archaeological mafia, especially when we know that in this regard, as I said, Macedonia is still a kind of El Dorado for illegal treasure hunters looking for buried treasures.

Antique shops from Skopje part of the Archaeological mafia network

According to Ivanovski, the clone of our archaeological mafia from Macedonia has so far brought out of the country a huge national treasure that cannot be valued in money. However, if a financial valuation is done, the amount earned from this black business will certainly be measured in millions of euros.

And how much Macedonia has lost in this way cannot be compared with billions! Only in the business with the famous site Isar-Marvinci near Gevgelija were several hundred locals involved at one time, who had their own “private” territory for the exploitation of this species. Each group only dug on their part of the site, and what was found was immediately bought up by the archaeological mafia for customers from Greece or for the European market for artifacts and antiques.

Read also: Stobi in Macedonia – The Troy of the Balkans

A well-known antique shop from Skopje, which worked with dealers from Belgrade and Thessaloniki, belonged to this mafia network for a long time.

As a country, we only dealt more intensively with the problem of illegal dealers in graves and artifacts after independence. And as soon as we started the action to prevent such illegal trafficking, we smuggled a mole into the mafia. Our man played the role of an intermediary who enables the placement of objects excavated in places in Macedonia.

Thanks to his data, several smuggling channels were cut. Once he gave us the information that he has a large number of artifacts that we need to react to quickly so that they do not get abroad. We went to see him that night, but of course we couldn’t take it away because his life was in danger. The only thing we could do was draw, identify, register all the items and keep track of what would happen to them over the next few days so we could catch the local dealers.

It was a diverse material from Marvinci, and what I saw there literally pounded my mind. It was the first time I saw such a precious bronze material, including a silver ring from the 3rd century BC. I looked at the ring with a magnifying glass. It was done beautifully. A relief that was modeled on an upright soldier (phalangite) of the Macedonian phalanx! His head was so meticulously detailed as I had never seen it before. In his left hand he held a huge spear, twice his height, and next to his right leg was the shield with the great Macedonian sun. I counted the rays of the sun with a magnifying glass: there were exactly sixteen!

I called the minister at the time and asked him to urgently buy the collection collected by the illegal seekers at Isar-Marvinci, without endangering our husband who worked for us. Unfortunately, such a “trade” required an appropriate decision, which means it took a day or two for the funds required to be approved. And just imagine, the entire collection has meanwhile been offered for only 800 Deutsche Mark! Only the ring with the soldier of Alexander the Great with the sixteen shining sun, if she were in Macedonia now, could not be valued with any money.

Unfortunately, the collection did not stay in Macedonia. Fate meant that the following year we and my colleague Ilcho Bojcevski went to the antiques fair in Belgrade. At the booth of an artifact smuggler by the name of Lalic, I saw the complete collection of Isar-Marvinci that we hadn’t bought last year for 800 marks!

Of course I didn’t tell him about it, but I was interested in the price. Since I studied archeology in Belgrade and speak Serbian very well without an accent, I played a layman who wants to buy, so I only removed the worst bronze objects. Certain Lalic wanted 5,000 marks for her. I allegedly agreed, and he, thought I was a good but uninformed buyer, allegedly lowered the price of the entire collection, especially for me, to 60,000 marks. Then someone said I was a cop, so Lalic quickly took everything off the counter and left as soon as he could.

I don’t know where this precious collection from Macedonia ended, especially the precious silver ring of the legionnaire of Alexander the Great. Maybe after this conversation someone will call and tell you. I only know that it is a shame that we did not buy the entire collection, which was on sale first hand in Skopje for only 800 German marks – Ivanovski recalls one of the most interesting cases of the Macedonian artifacts trade.

Market also in Bosnia and Herzegovina

In addition to the Belgrade market, a branch of the Mafia archaeological network also goes to Bosnia, but according to Ivanovski, many valuable archaeological objects from Macedonia have ended up in the “black market” for antiques in Thessaloniki.

The Greek artifact traders, i.e. indirectly the Greek state, are most interested in objects from ancient Macedonia and the Iron Age. They don’t buy material from other periods because politically they don’t need it. This, of course, is a strategy that has a specific purpose. I checked information that the Greek dealers often give such material to the state of Greece, i.e. the museums, for patriotic reasons. The facilitator of this work is a faculty in Thessaloniki where children of our richer compatriots also study.

In my opinion, the ultimate goal of the Greek interest in buying anything from the days of ancient Macedonia is to say one day, “Enough is enough, let’s see what you have and what we have.”

The great nervousness of our southern neighbor is due, among other things, to our increasing archaeological activity, the greatest of all time, especially in the exploration of our archaeological sites from the Iron Age and from the ancient Macedonian period. In this regard, they are even glad that the work is done by the illegal treasure hunters.

You know, during Yugoslavia, research in Macedonia was purposely enforced only in Roman times in order to avoid the era of Alexander the Great in this area as much as possible.

In the meantime, Macedonia was of course an El Dorado for treasure hunters. At that time, for example, a huge archaeological area of 250 x 250 square meters of the Marvinci necropolis was destroyed.

After Macedonia became an independent state, attitudes towards the archaeological treasure and sites in the country changed completely, and the police were given a legal framework to be much more active in detecting and monitoring illegal treasure hunters.

For example, the main organizer of the destruction of the Marvinci necropolis was captured at that time. They had expertise, the material was confiscated, but the court rulings were very mild.

In Gevgelija, for example, the judge wondered what to judge when he was shown the objects excavated in Marvinci. Little did the man know that this was a precious treasure that is part of the history of Macedonia. The same judge publicly admitted that if he saw them on the street, he would have thrown these items away because he would have thought they were some kind of rubble.

Of course, there were also criminals who bribed judges and prosecutors and were then acquitted. In addition, they had to return the material that had been confiscated during the actions we carried out together with the police. I remember that all of the material was returned to three criminals, and that was mostly collections of 1,000 items.

Most of the material is probably abroad now. According to the records we have in Marvinci alone in 1992, it was found that around 400 people were digging, and the owner of the “project” was a goldsmith from Valandovo who has since passed away.

The investigation found that the treasure hunters were working for a daily rate, and the daily rate depended on what would be found, so it was between 50 and 100 D-Marks.

Some treasure hunters are afraid of God

In his long career related to protecting Macedonian cultural heritage, Milan Ivanovski had many other interesting cases that he remembered to this day. One of these is the one that occurred in Debar in 1982, more precisely in the Selokuki settlement (the site is also known as Taraneš) on today’s Macedonian-Albanian border.

At that time, Dragi Tozija was the director of the Office for the Protection of Cultural Monuments in Macedonia. He called me into his office and said he had approved 4,000 marks to go to Debar, where a certain Milaim Besim had discovered a very interesting grave on his property. A grave was accidentally discovered while plowing one of the fields in the Tarinesh neighborhood, and initially there was information that a large gold cross was found in it.

We found Besim’s house, but only his wife was home. He was abroad where he worked. The woman told us that they bought the fields from a villager. When they plowed to sow wheat, their plow caught on a stone slab. On the same day he started digging, cleaned the stone, and found a silver tray and mug.

According to his wife, when he lifted the plate, he saw a few more items, took one out, thinking it was a skull, put it back in the grave, put the tray and cup in there, and covered the grave with the stone again, then covered that Grave with earth. However, he may have thrown the skull out of the grave, and it may not have been the skull, but the precious glass beaker from the 4th century, a so-called diatret glass (see picture below), the most beautiful glass beaker from Roman times. There were about 20 items in the tomb.

BIBE VIVAS MULTIS ANNIS “If you drink, you will live long and happily.”

Before we got to the place, many gold dealers from Debar, Tetovo, Gostivar and Skopje came to Besim with large financial offers so that he could tell them where the grave was, but he refused everything. As his wife told us, “he doesn’t want to have a problem with Allah”. The grave was saved, however, and in it we found the diatret glass, a precious glass that is the only such glass in Macedonia today, and one of only 16 such in the world.

Our glass is the last discovered. Before that, the fifteenth diatret glass in the world was discovered in Yambol, Bulgaria. No such glass was discovered in the world after our discovery, and the place where it was found actually marks the southernmost point of European civilization at the time.

The importance of this cup and the slide shows the fact that, among the vast archaeological heritage of the Balkans, for a representative exhibition in New York, selected by an American expert from Macedonia, the very two artifacts that were in the fields were selected were found by Milaim Besim from Selokuki near Debar.

During the excavation of the site, we discovered that it was a single grave located on the ancient border between Epirus and Macedonia and probably buried a customs officer in it, who was probably in close proximity. This is confirmed by the valuable fibula or a type of Roman safety pin that was attached to the cloak over the shoulder.

On the fibula (see picture below) that we found in this tomb, the name Licinius I was on one side and Licinius II, co-ruler of Constantine the Great, on the other, which means that it is a fibula acts, which denotes the status of a high official.

It is one of the few specimens in the world with an engraved inscription of an emperor. We have two such primers, but the one found in Zelenikovo is a simple girl’s birthday primer that does not have an emperor’s inscription, but only an engraved wish: “Live long”. We took the fibula with imperial consecration to the Macedonian gold dealer Rubin-Carmine, where they estimated the purity of gold to be 1,000.

For comparison: the purest gold in the world now has a purity of 400, which means that less than fifty percent of the other metal is inlaid in gold. In addition to the cup and the fibula, there was a silver, gold-plated plate in the grave weighing about 2 kg, followed by a large glass container for fragrances (perfume), various other small balsam glass bottles and much more.

When we finished the excavation, a group of people from Debar, probably instigated by the archaeological mafia, tried to prevent the artefacts from being removed from Debar, but with the help of the police they finally reached the State Museum of Macedonia in Skopje.

Now it is one of our most exclusive collections, i.e. one of the most valuable that we have in Macedonia from that time. The representative noble glass, the so-called large diatret glass in the Cologne type, was kept by Jovan Petrov. And imagine that I brought the box in which the objects were transported on the bus, and every time the bus stopped, I got out too so that someone wouldn’t steal the box from the trunk – says Ivanovski.

According to him, the fact that the police, together with the institutions responsible for the protection of cultural wealth, confiscated a large amount of material excavated from Isar-Marvinci in the last action only confirms the conclusion that there are still illegal treasure hunters in Macedonia that trade in national treasures, but also secret depots where those items that were unearthed in earlier years are kept and that the archaeological mafia is waiting for a price and a way to get them across the border.

In this context, Ivanovski mentions a case in which a smuggler with a large collection of archaeological objects was caught on the Bogorodica border, but while entering Macedonia.

All objects came from Isar-Marvinci, and most of them were precious terracotta from Roman times. And why did he bring her back? Because the faculty in Thessaloniki, which illegally coordinates the purchase of artifacts from Macedonia, is not interested in the Romans, but only in the ancient Macedonian epochs.

In Gevgelija and Dojran there are always people involved in this black business and the fact that there are casinos or dental offices nearby is used as cover. Of course, they don’t take all kinds of objects, but strictly defined artifacts. Many of them are very knowledgeable about archeology and therefore know exactly what to buy. In contrast to them, literally anything excavated from a location in Macedonia goes north. Illegal passages carry a variety of archaeological objects, from the smallest to the largest, such as statue heads.

In 1996, near Kumanovo, on a green border, a tractor driver was caught with baskets in which he was hauling maize. When they dumped the corn, they saw that the baskets had a false bottom and a large number of various artifacts and even an entire stone sculpture of smaller dimensions of Hercules were hidden.

Most of the artifacts were again from Isar-Marvinci, but there were also a few places in Delchevo. Aside from the artifacts, the smuggler also transported auto parts, so he asked the police to take everything from him just to give him the archaeological items, as the owner would kill him if he returned without them.

In cooperation with our colleagues from Serbia, we learned that the main channel for trade in artifacts from Macedonia to Serbia is via Bujanovac. We had data that these are huge shipments that are making a lot of money for the archaeological mafia, and only a small comparison shows that this is a very profitable “business”.

For example, the illegal treasure hunters sell a small kantharos, a small terracotta bowl, made from Marvinci for 200-300 denars (about 61.5 denars correspond to 1 euro), depending on the preservation. As soon as this small archaeological piece is transported across the border in Belgrade, its price is already between 200 and 300 euros, and in Basel it is already worth over 2,000 euros.

Therefore, the archaeological mafia really earns a lot of money, and our illegal treasure hunters destroy the Macedonian national treasure for a miserable two or three beers in a bar – says Milan Ivanovski.

SOURCE: Fokus/Macedonian: Грците купуваат само археолошки предмети од времето на Александар Македонски, September 26, 2008, issue 691

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