Ancient Afghan relics smuggled into UK

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The Independent Online

It cost £40 from an antique market in central London, not a bad price for a 4,000-year-old relic of an ancient civilisation in what is now northern Afghanistan.

What made the metal axe handle - on sale at Mazar Antiques, in Grays Antiques Market, just off Bond Street, alongside knives, rings, seals and bangles - stand out was the fact that it was identical to a collection in the British Museum.

Although it is illegal to take antiquities out of Afghanistan, there is no suggestion that Gray's Antiques Market, or Mazar Antiques, was involved in the illegal export of antiquities.

Those in the British Museum were housed in a secure storage area, among many cartons of looted Afghan artefacts, impounded by customs officers at ports and airports.

Scotland Yard's arts and antiques squad say London is the number one destination for stolen Afghan antiquities and the seized material is the tip of the iceberg. Most finds its way onto the open market - but because the provenance cannot be proved prosecutions are rare.

Experts believe the objects seized are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Most have not been properly examined and many, like the axe handle, are corroded with age. Careful restoration increases values exponentially - some cleaned axe handles can cost hundreds of pounds at antique markets.

Police estimate that three to four tons of Afghan antiquities have been seized by both police and customs over the past few years. Most have been taken from historic sites, bought cheaply by dealers from farmers or peasants, taken from Afghanistan illegally, often through neighbouring countries, and exported to London and other major European cities.

"It's a tragedy" said Robert Knox, head of the Asian department at the British Museum. "Significant quantities of very valuable and historically interesting objects are being taken from Afghanistan and are being put up for sale on the open market."

He said it wasgalling that in many cases the material had been removed from largely undocumented ancient sites without any chance for examination in situ. Afghanistan was home to several prehistoric civilisations, as well as a substantial Islamic culture.

Much of the material held at the British Museum comes from an area of northern Afghanistan which was home to the Bactrian civilisation of around 2,000BC and offers clues to how they lived.

Mr Knox said: "This is a civilisation about which we know very little and our hopes of learning more are destroyed by the fact of this material being taken wholesale from these sites."

Like the explosion in opium production, much of the trade stems from the removal of the Taliban, the effect of which has been to render parts of the country lawless and ungoverned.

But steps are being taken to fight the trade. Although the museum would love to keep some of the objects the aim is to carry out a full inventory and return all seized goods to Afghanistan.

At a London conference on Afghanistan earlier this year, a clause calling for the ending of the trade and the restoration of damaged artefacts was included in the final agreement.

Said Akbar Zeweri, from the Afghan embassy, said he was "very pleased" with the action taken by the British authorities against the "opportunists" exploiting the Afghan poor.

So what of the newly acquired axe handle, which the British Museum confirmed as genuine. The stall, Mazar Antiques, was unable to explain its origins. But Grays Antiques Market promised an investigation: "We have always taken a strong line against the illegal importation of cultural objects and should any of our dealers be proven to be guilty of this we would immediately take action,'' said Bennie Gray, the owner.

The axe handle itself, wrought from copper by a craftsman about 4,000 years ago, has been handed over to the British Museum for eventual return.

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