Canada is returning to the government of Bulgaria 21,000 pieces of stolen cultural artifacts, including  Byzantine crosses, bone sewing needles, pagan amulets, jewelled belt buckles and bronze eagles.

There are also 18,000 coins, including some from Hellenistic and Roman times. Most of the cultural objects were illegally excavated in Bulgaria and shipped by mail to an importer in Montreal. 

Bulgaria's Deputy Minister of Culture, Todor Chobanov, who is also an archeologist, personally examined the artifacts and said he is excited to bring them home. 

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Most of the Bulgarian cultural objects were illegally excavated in Bulgaria and shipped by mail to an importer in Montreal. (Alison Crawford/CBC)

"We are so happy that a country like Canada is responding to our needs, to our call and giving us back precious objects that are really important to our heritage," Chobanov said.

"They represent different pages from our history," he said. "They represent different cultures, different civilizations and their great numbers would enable us to make new scientific discoveries about our past."

Irina Bokova, the Director General of UNESCO, was also present for the handover ceremony at the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec. 

"We must combat cultural theft with as much energy as we promote cultural exchanges," she said.

Canada Border Service agents intercepted the first two shipments in 2007 and then called in the RCMP.  By November 2008, the Mounties had seized thousands of ancient coins, jewellery and other Bulgarian antiquities. 

No one was ever charged in the case but RCMP Sgt. Chris Pittman said investigators believed the importer intended to sell the objects on the internet. 

Pittman said the global trafficking of stolen cultural objects is a growing problem. 

"Certainly in Europe, countries where you have many different types of antiquities that are stolen from illegal digs in different countries, they're smuggled out of the country, brought into North America and then sold illegally."

Chobanov said UNESCO should also update and strengthen its 1970 convention on preventing the illicit trafficking of cultural goods.   

He said his government is planning an elaborate repatriation ceremony for the objects and that many will go straight into Bulgarian museums, which he hopes will help boost the country's tourism industry.