Looted treasures returned to Afghanistan by British Museum

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

 

The British Museum, aided by British police and the UK Border Force, has helped return to Afghanistan hundreds of looted antiquities seized from smugglers, The Independent can reveal.

David Cameron will announce in Afghanistan today that 850 treasures have been repatriated, having been passed to the British Museum for safeguarding following their confiscation in Britain over the last two years.

A spectacular second-century sculpture of the Buddha, exquisite first-century ivories and delicate Bactrian Bronze Age cosmetics containers are among treasures that reflect the rich heritage of a land that was once a crossroads of Eastern and Western civilisations. Their combined value is thought to be around £1m.

Last week, in a secret operation, the entire collection was despatched on two military planes to the Afghan national museum in Kabul, which is desperate to rebuild its holdings. Up to 80 per cent of its exhibits were plundered or destroyed during the Afghan civil war of the 1990s.

Such was the concern about the safety of the antiquities that The Independent was asked to delay covering their return until they were back in the Kabul museum.

Bronze Age carvings and 1,000-year-old Islamic metalwork are among the objects confiscated at British airports, including Birmingham and Manchester.

These cases reflect a global trade that exploits Afghanistan's decades of war to smuggle its heritage abroad for profit. Recent research by Unesco found that thousands of ancient pieces are smuggled through the country's porous borders every year.

Some of the treasures were destined for the British art market. Others stopped off in the UK in transit, it is believed. The Metropolitan Police Art and Antiques Unit has been involved in the investigations. No arrests have been made so far.

Last week, a suicide bomber killed more than a dozen guests at a wedding in northern Afghanistan – the latest violent attack within the country.

But despite the ongoing risks, Afghanistan's curators felt that they were now ready to be reunited with their antiquities. They have created a new display on Buddhism, where the repatriated Buddha sculpture will receive pride of place.

Last year, an anonymous British dealer collaborated with the British Museum to buy and repatriate that sculpture after recognising it as an important antiquity that had been stolen from the Kabul museum in the 1990s. It had been bought by a Japanese collector, from whom the dealer acquired it with his own money with the purpose of repatriating it to Afghanistan.

St John Simpson, the British Museum's senior curator responsible for the pre-Islamic collections from Iran and Arabia, told The Independent: "We're all in it together as museums and museum curators. I'd like to think that anyone would do the same for us if we were unlucky to suffer major disaster or crisis. It is a liberating moment for our colleagues in Kabul."

Other important repatriated pieces include Begram ivories stolen from the Kabul museum and a 12th-century coin from Bamiyan – site of the Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Life and Style
tech
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas