Smuggling of illegal artefacts

Nazi memorabilia is as popular as ever with collectors
Belarus’ geographical position has always attracted movement across its borders; unfortunately, this can include the transit of illicit goods. Recently, collectors’ interest in WW2 artefacts has risen dramatically; Belarus customs are finding war-time trophies, anything bearing the Third Reich symbol, medals and coins streaming through. These antiques command a high price; one anonymous buyer from Munich parted with 30,000 euros at auction for the iron cross awarded to officers wounded in Hitler’s bunker during the Stauffenberg attempt. Another European collector paid 19,500 euros for a vase presented to Hitler and another 37,000 euros for Hitler’s silver cigarette case (with its engraved swastika and eagle). Despite public organisations’ endeavours to ban the trade of fascist symbols through internet auctions, Ebay.com is currently offering almost 5,000 Nazi related items — varying from $17.50 coins to banners priced at $500. Where money is involved, morals soon fly out of the window. Some rarities are in demand from both genuine collectors and modern day neo-nazis who glorify the symbols of Hitler’s evil regime. It seems that some people will never learn from history.

Vasily Chernik, Chair of the Republican Expert Commission on the Distribution of Valuables Confiscated by Belarus’ Customs Agencies, tells us about some items recently confiscated at Gomel. His weighty folder lists the values of the following: china statuettes, spoons, a tea set, a kettle with an eagle — all bearing the SS swastika — and German binoculars. All have historical value and should be in museums; even the dark side of history needs to be remembered.

— How efficient are customs officers at detecting smugglers?

— Grodno Regional Customs officers have seized a 18th century decorative plate, a 9th century doll with natural hair, mirrors, dishes and another antique doll with a mechanical winding mechanism. Most people will deny ownership for fear of punishment — although they are sitting nearby the baggage on a train; alternatively, they say they are unaware of the need for a permit to take rare items abroad.

A friend of mine wanted to take his violin on a six-month business trip abroad but discovered that acquiring the necessary certification was time consuming. He had to visit many institutions to fill out the paperwork even though it was just a plain factory-made violin.

COLLECTORS’ INTEREST IN WW2 ARTEFACTS HAS RISEN DRAMATICALLY; BELARUS CUSTOMS ARE FINDING WAR-TIME TROPHIES, ANYTHING BEARING THE THIRD REICH SYMBOL, MEDALS AND COINS STREAMING THROUGH
Customs officers would not know whether a violin was antique or not — this is why it must receive certification. The State List of Historical and Cultural Valuables that require a special permit to exit Belarus includes violins. Your friend was wise to look ahead and obtain the permit. Such items can be loaned on inter-state exchange for short periods of time; they include 8,000 rarities from the National Art Museum, National Library and private collections. The Commission has held up to 10,000 seized items before now.

— The Commission includes representatives of our museums. How do they decide where to send seized items?

— Sometimes, several museums seek to claim the same artefact. One 15th century Koran was seized by Grodno Regional Customs and a huge argument ensued between the Belarusian State Museum of Religious History and the National Library. As the library has the necessary environment for storing ancient books, the unique folio was sent there but an electronic copy and a plaster cast of the cover were made for the Museum of Religious History. Most of our museums have received German cameras from WW2 — on the eve of the Victory Day anniversary, customs officers confiscated about 20 of them.

— How do smugglers usually hide items?

— Coins and paper money are often hidden in modern automatic pens and mobile phones but double-bottomed suitcases are still popular. Five years ago, an ancient icon was seized on the Belarus-Lithuania border; they were transporting within a folding table and had cut it into four parts. Luckily, it was restored afterwards.

— A Belarusian customs museum is being set up in Minsk this year isn’t it?

— We already have similar museums in Brest and Gomel. We give most of the seized goods to regional museums as not everyone can travel to the capital but the Minsk collection will be equally good.

by Irina Zavadskaya
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