Saturday, August 25, 2012

National Museum of Afghanistan welcomes return of looted treasures

The National Museum of Afghanistan has seen the return of 843 heritage objects including items recovered in 3 separate seizures of smuggled artefacts by the UK Border Force and another group from other investigations by the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police.

A precious cargo

The precious cargo, weighing just over two tonnes, left RAF Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire on the 12 July 2012 after the British Museum and the Royal Air Force worked together to make the historic repatriation possible.

Travelling onboard a C17 transport aircraft, the material was first transported to Camp Bastion, the main military base in Helmand. After a short stop, it took off again on the second leg of the journey, on a C130 Hercules aircraft, to Kabul.

These objects were identified as originating in Afghanistan by the British Museum and were stored there for safekeeping and recording until their return to Kabul.

Additional objects were saved by private individuals which included exquisite examples of the Begram Ivories, which were featured in the exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World in 2011 and an important sculpture of Buddha. Both these priceless treasures were stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan during the civil war (1992-1994) and found their way onto the black market.

Exquisite art

The Begram Ivories date to the first century AD and originally decorated Indian wooden furniture excavated in hidden store-rooms at the ancient city of Begram. Those in the consignment had been feared lost since the civil war until they were identified on the black market and acquired on behalf of the Kabul museum by an anonymous private donor in 2010. They were conserved at the British Museum through additional support from the exhibition sponsor Bank of America Merrill Lynch as part of its Art Conservation Project, and temporarily exhibited as part of the exhibition in 2011.

The Buddha dates to the second or third century AD and was found in 1965 at Sarai Khuja, north of Kabul, and was exhibited in the museum there until the civil war during which period it disappeared abroad into private hands. It was again identified and acquired on behalf of the National Museum of Afghanistan and is offered by the donor in memory of the late Carla Grissman (1928-2011), who did much to work with the Afghan museum staff and who was one of the founding members of SPACH (Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage).

5000 years of cultural heritage

The additional objects date from the late third millennium BC onwards and include Bactrian Bronze Age cosmetic flasks, stamp seals and statuettes of types known to have been buried as grave-goods; three decorated stone compartmented bowls of a type previously only known from excavations at the Greek city of Ai Khanum in northern Afghanistan; Greco-Bactrian, Kushan and medieval Islamic coins; Islamic metal and pottery vessels, and assorted other minor items of mixed date and materials. These items therefore cover almost all the great periods of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage. The items were seized by UK Border Force and the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police as they passed through Britain, presumably for sale on the black market.

The opportunity has also been taken to send the National Museum a large number of copies of the exhibition catalogue including copies specially translated into Dari and Pashto.

Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum said “I am delighted that these important artefacts have been safely returned to the National Museum in Kabul. This is the outcome of the ongoing dialogue between our cultural institutions as well as the support of the authorities to identify and preserve items from the national collection of Afghanistan that had been illegally removed during years of conflict.”

Returning a countries legacy

In 2011 the British Museum signed a three-year Memorandum of Understanding with the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul and both parties agreed to continue collaborative efforts to identify and return objects to Kabul which had either been stolen from the National Museum during the civil war or otherwise illegally exported from Afghanistan. In 2009 UK Border Force in conjunction with the British Museum and the International Red Cross returned 1490 seized objects, thus bringing the total number of objects returned to over 2,330.

Past Horizons. 2012. "National Museum of Afghanistan welcomes return of looted treasures". Past Horizons. Posted: August 5, 2012. Available online:

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