Ancient coins, pendants, brooches, statues and spearheads are among the artefacts returned to the people of Bulgaria after they were discovered at Dover.
Estimated to be worth £76,110, the looted national assets were found hidden inside a lorry full of trousers at the Port of Dover in October.
The driver, Dimitar Dimitrov, 41, was working as a courier on behalf of a Bulgarian organised crime group and was jailed for two years in March after admitting transferring criminal property.
The investigation was led by Kent Police detectives with assistance from the Metropolitan Police Service’s specialist Art and Antiquities Unit and the Bulgarian authorities.
Detective Inspector Shaun Creed of Kent Police’s Border Policing team was among those who attended a ceremony at the Bulgarian Embassy in London where the artefacts were formally handed back to the nation they were stolen from.
More items seized during separate investigations carried out by the Metropolitan Police Service were also returned.
DI Creed said: “The illegal excavation of antiques is an ongoing issue in Bulgaria, depriving its citizens of an important part of their cultural heritage.
“The criminals responsible think nothing of the harm it causes when they smuggle their ill-gotten gains into countries like the UK, often using the proceeds from their smuggling to fund other international criminal activities.
“It was an honour and a privilege for Kent Police to be invited to attend the Bulgarian Embassy for this special occasion, and to formally return the items that should never have found their way into the UK in the first place.
“We will continue to work with our partners both at home and abroad to tackle this type of criminality and hope this result sends a clear message to anyone else planning to smuggle items into the country.”
Detective Superintendent John Roch, head of economic crime for the Metropolitan Police, said: “The Metropolitan Police recognises the harm caused by the trade in illicit archaeological artefacts, and we are proud of our work with Kent Police and Bulgarian law enforcement on this issue.
“Intercepting these artefacts prevents organised criminals benefiting from their unlawful conduct and stops the pieces being acquired by innocent members of the public.
“On one hand it is our legacy and our national asset, on the other our contribution to European and world history and culture…”
“The Art and Antiques Unit will continue to work closely with enforcement agencies across the UK and internationally in order to protect cultural heritage from thieves, smugglers and fraudsters.”
Ambassador Marin Raykov of the Bulgarian Embassy said: ‘We look at our historical and cultural heritage as a major factor for preserving our national identity.
“On one hand it is our legacy and our national asset, on the other our contribution to European and world history and culture.
“Illegal looting inflicts colossal damage, both by robbing future generations of an essential part of their cultural heritage and with altering history.
“For this reason it is imperative to deal with such international criminal networks through enhanced international cooperation.”
He added the presentation is proof of the successful partnership between the agencies involved.
“We highly praise the work done by Kent Police, the Metropolitan Police and UK Border Force, and look forward to continued and enhanced cooperation.”
Read more: All the latest news from Dover