Repatriating Afghanistan’s stolen and looted artefacts


N NOVEMBER 2013, Nora von Achenbach, curator on the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg, Germany, examined {the catalogue} for an upcoming public sale by the Paris-based seller Boisgirard-Antonini. The shiny pages provided a bevy of antiquities on the market: bronze collectible figurines, jewelry and a statue from historic Egypt estimated at greater than €300,000. However von Achenbach was taken with a pale marble pill, carved with arabesques, vines and Persian
script. Lot 104, an “essential epigraphic panel with interlacings from the palace of Mas’ud III”, was date to the twelfth century, from the capital of the Ghaznavid Empire, in what’s right this moment Afghanistan.

Curators should be cautious of shopping for pretend or stolen artwork, significantly in terms of historic artefacts, which can have been illegally excavated in international locations suffering from conflict and corruption. Boisgirard-Antonini’s catalogue merely said that the marble’s provenance was “a non-public French assortment”. However von Achenbach – who didn’t reply to requests for an interview – might have been reassured by the prolonged description of the archaeological website the place the marble was initially discovered, the royal palace in Ghazni, the place a authorized, Italian-led excavation broke floor within the Nineteen Fifties.

Furthermore, as {the catalogue} famous, three panels from the identical website have been held by the Brooklyn Museum, San Francisco’s Asian Artwork Museum and the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Von Achenbach determined that the marble may kind a part of her museum’s assortment in Hamburg. She despatched in a bid, the equal of round $US50,000, and received.

Boisgirard-Antonini shipped the panel to Germany. Whereas it was nonetheless in storage on the museum, von Achenbach invited Stefan Heidemann, an knowledgeable on Islamic artwork at Hamburg College, to view the panel. Heidemann thought it was magnificent, however unease crept over him as he questioned how, precisely, it had come from Afghanistan to Europe. He had labored on the Metropolitan Museum of Artwork in New York, the place, as probability would have it, a colleague of his, Martina Rugiadi, wrote her doctoral thesis on the Italian excavation in Ghazni, and the destiny of the marbles in the course of the conflict years that adopted.

When Heidemann received in contact, Rugiadi informed him the Hamburg marble had certainly been stolen from the Afghan authorities. Numbered C3733 throughout
the excavation, the marble disappeared throughout Afghanistan’s civil conflict, when the nation’s museums have been robbed by guerrillas. Furthermore, Rugiadi had already heard concerning the public sale, and had emailed Pierre Antonini to warn him across the time of the sale. He replied asking for extra data. However the public sale home shipped the panel to Hamburg anyway, with out informing the museum of the proof that it was stolen.

“The query I ask of each object is, ‘Are you stolen or not?’ ”

“This I discover fairly a scandal,” Heidemann informed me. Because it so occurred, Claude Boisgirard was being investigated in reference to a sequence of thefts from
the venerable Parisian public sale home Lodge Drouot, the place he spent many years as an auctioneer; he could be given a 10-month suspended sentence for fraud and conspiracy in 2016. (Boisgirard-Antonini didn’t reply to requests for remark.) The Hamburg museum notified German authorities, however didn’t pursue authorized motion towards Boisgirard-Antonini; it stored the marble in storage and out of sight.

In August 2018, I obtained an e-mail from Tobias Mörike, a curator of Islamic artwork, introducing himself and the marble. Von Achenbach had retired in 2017; the museum was now planning to exhibit the marble as a part of a sequence referred to as Looted Artwork? – a mea culpa, of kinds – and needed to return the artefact to the Afghan authorities. There have been nonetheless many unanswered questions that surrounded the marble, he informed me. How had it gone from the arms of looters to the showrooms of Paris? What did this say concerning the different Ghazni marbles held by prestigious establishments? Mörike had learn my tales on smugglers and corruption in Afghanistan. Would I be taken with visiting for the exhibition’s opening?

Two months later, I stood in central Hamburg in entrance of the three-storey
former vocational college that housed the Museum of Arts and Crafts (or MKG, as it’s identified by its German initials). Silke Reuther, the museum’s provenance researcher, led me on a tour of the gathering. She defined that, like London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, the MKG was supposed, in an period earlier than Wikipedia and Google, as a reference for design and manufacturing, illustrated with a set of masterworks spanning geography and time: Kashan tiles, Etruscan vases, Coptic funerary-cloth embroidery. “The query I ask of each object,” she stated, “is, ‘Are you stolen or not?’ ”

Nearly 100 items of Ghazni marble
vanished from Afghan authorities arms in the course of the civil conflict. Credit score:Getty Photos

If we pay attention, objects have their very own tales to inform. The query of provenance – the chain of possession from creation to the current – was initially involved with establishing authenticity, and due to this fact worth. You
may know {that a} portray was actually a Velázquez, say, in the event you may discover its unique invoice of sale. However in current many years, provenance analysis has come to be wielded towards the perceived wrongs of the previous.

Like many professions pushed by a brand new era of activists and students, the museum world is coming to grips with thorny problems with energy and inequality. One among them is the focus of precious antiquities from around the globe within the arms of Western museums. A fierce debate is underway about whether or not a few of these objects needs to be returned to their former homeowners or locations of origin, in what is named “restitution”.

Close to the museum entrance, a pallet with a crate had been positioned on the ground. Inside, nestled amid a raft of packing materials was the carved marble panel, two ft lengthy. Crouching down, I noticed that the sandy-coloured stone was delicately veined and faintly translucent. The panel was carved in aid in three sections: on the backside, there was a fragile band of interwoven vines; within the center, arabesques shaped a sample of three-leaved curls; and the highest held a fraction of Persian, in Kufic script: wa alam-e sufli, “…and the world of the lifeless”.

A thousand years earlier, the Ghaznavid emperors and their horsemen dominated an empire stretching from Iran to India. The Persian phrases carved within the stone have been a part of a verse extolling the dynasty that scrolled alongside the wall of the imperial courtroom. It was there that the poet Ferdowsi, whose stature in Persian letters is akin to Shakespeare’s in English, introduced his epic work, the Shahnameh, to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni. The Hamburg marble was a fraction of that distant universe.

At present, items of the palace’s structure are scattered around the globe. Utilizing previous footage taken by the archaeological mission, in addition to public sale data and catalogues, Rugiadi and her Italian colleagues had compiled a database of the Ghazni marbles, itemizing their unique location and, if identified, their present one. It was obtainable on-line, and looking it, I used to be stunned to see extra of those panels at museums in the USA, Europe, the Center East and Asia. Some had been stolen from the Afghan authorities; others have been taken from websites within the countryside and spirited overseas.

A long time of battle have devastated Afghanistan, one of many world’s poorest international locations. Looters have stripped its archaeological websites naked. “There are tens of 1000’s of objects from Afghanistan that entered the market within the mid-Nineties,” St John Simpson, a curator on the British Museum who research antiquities trafficking, informed me, “and all of these have been virtually actually illegally exported or stolen.”

The stolen marble panel, C3733, was returned to Afghan officials in Germany before being repatriated.

The stolen marble panel, C3733, was returned to Afghan officers in Germany earlier than being repatriated.Credit score:Getty Photos

Within the northern summer time of 2019, I flew to Kabul to analyze the marbles’ journey. Combating raged between the federal government and insurgents; at the same time as
American troops withdrew, the violence was getting worse. Folks fled their properties and went hungry; looters scoured the countryside for artefacts. At some point, I received a name from Ghulam Rajabi, a local of Ghazni who labored on the unique Italian dig that excavated the Hamburg marble, saying that he had arrived within the capital. Amid the crowds of customers on Qala-e Fatullah’s principal road, I noticed an aged, snow-bearded man leaning on a cane, carrying the
heavy white turban of a rural elder. It was Rajabi, who had simply made the brief however harmful journey from Ghazni Metropolis.


Rajabi was a younger man once they unearthed the marbles; he was 81 now. He grew up the son of a poor cobbler, and anticipated to comply with his father’s commerce till the Italians arrived, providing good wages to those that may work rigorously with a decide and shovel. Authorized archaeological excavations started in Afghanistan after the 1919 conflict of independence freed the nation from the diplomatic isolation imposed by the British.

On the time, little bodily proof existed to again up the fabulous legends of the nation’s three millennia as a crossroads of empire. When the Italian archaeological mission arrived in Ghazni in 1956, it was a sleepy provincial capital a number of hours from Kabul, with mudwalled properties that lacked electrical energy and operating water.

Nevertheless it was identified, from historic sources, to have been the seat of Sultan Mahmud and his heirs; it was there that, after centuries of Arab dominance, the Persian language was revived in literature and authorities. The one seen traces that remained have been two elaborate brick minarets that dominated the arid plain beneath the city.

300 metres to the east of the biggest minaret, the archaeologists found the stays of a posh constructed round a courtyard, with pillars and vaulted passageways. Once they unearthed its splendid marble décor, the Italians have been satisfied they’d discovered the royal palace constructed by Mas’ud III, Mahmud’s great-grandson.

Below the settlement between the Italian mission and the Afghan authorities, a portion of the excavated antiquities have been shipped to the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale in Rome. The rest, together with the Hamburg panel, numbered C3733, belonged to Afghanistan; some have been displayed within the new Rawza Museum, housed in a Sixteenth-century mausoleum, in Ghazni. Different marbles have been shipped to Kabul, the place they have been exhibited within the Islamic gallery on the Nationwide Museum of Afghanistan.

However Afghanistan’s archaeological treasures additionally stoked appetites within the West. Within the spring of 1978, Johannes Kalter, head of the Oriental Division on the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, set off to go to Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan on what he referred to as a “amassing journey”, which, he wrote within the museum’s journal, “at comparatively low costs brings a wealth of in any other case
scarcely obtainable and well-documented materials to the museum”.

On the time, a commerce in illegally excavated antiquities was carried out overtly in Kabul’s bazaars, which have been crowded with overseas consumers.

At present, the Linden Museum owns numerous marbles from Ghazni, 5 of which have been photographed in Afghan holy websites by the Italian mission. When the locals foraged for bricks within the mounds that dotted the plain, generally a chunk of carved marble turned up, typically bearing Koranic inscriptions. These got locations of satisfaction in shrines and mosques, which the Italians documented however for probably the most half left in situ as they have been integral to the websites, just like the marble area of interest with a carved oil lamp that was positioned because the mihrab, which signifies the path of Mecca, at a mosque in Ghazni.

Afghanistan had legal guidelines to guard its cultural heritage, however they weren’t properly enforced. On the time, a commerce in illegally excavated antiquities was carried out overtly in Kabul’s bazaars, which have been crowded with overseas consumers, a few of them backpackers off the Hippie Path.

You would stroll by downtown’s Rooster Avenue and, together with hand-woven rugs and lapis lazuli bracelets, browse artefacts 1000’s of years previous – in the event you weren’t proven one of many many fakes on provide. In Kabul, I spoke to Sayed Jafar, a carpet vendor and the son of an antiques seller. Once I confirmed
Jafar images of Ghazni marbles, he recognised them instantly. Each his father and their neighbour, Noor Shir, offered antiquities to foreigners in the course of the Nineteen Seventies, and Jafar recalled seeing such marbles in Shir’s store. “Noor Shir would encourage folks to convey them from Ghazni, to steal them from the shrines and graveyards, and to dig for them,” he informed me.

Exporting antiquities required permission from the federal government, however border controls have been lax, and bribery frequent. It was straightforward to smuggle artefacts in a foreign country, in the event you knew what you have been doing. “They might combine previous and new gadgets and ship them in steel trunks from the airport, or by land to Pakistan,” stated Jafar, who bears a scar on his jaw from the rocket strike that killed his father in the course of the civil conflict.

Throughout his go to to Kabul, Kalter, who died in 2014, was helped by a younger
German antiquities seller named Joerg Drechsel. Jafar didn’t recognise
Drechsel’s title, however a senior Afghan archaeologist informed me that he remembered Drechsel coping with the shopkeepers on the town: “He was working with Noor Shir.”

Once I contacted Drechsel, he denied being concerned in illegally exporting antiquities. “Actually, I used to be not concerned within the export of objects in any respect,” he wrote, “since I acquired objects from established sellers and the export
clearance and transport was fully their duty.” He stated that his final
go to to Afghanistan was in both 1978 or 1979. “The Ghazni marbles have been provided to me a lot later by an middleman in Germany.”

Annette Krämer, who’s getting ready an exhibit on the historical past of the Linden’s
Afghan assortment, informed me the museum has no file of how the marbles acquired from Drechsel have been exported. Drechsel, who labored intently with a
variety of outstanding German establishments, additionally obtained a Ghazni marble
that’s at present held by the Reiss Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim, based on the scholarly quantity Islamic Artwork in Germany; the museum stated its marble was donated by an area carpet seller in 1988.

After the Afghan civil war, it became too dangerous for staff to work in the National Museum in Kabul.

After the Afghan civil conflict, it turned too harmful for employees to work within the Nationwide Museum in Kabul.Credit score:Getty Photos

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The countryside rose towards it, and American-supplied arms fanned the flames of conflict greater. The Italian mission stopped coming to Ghazni; Rajabi traded his shovel for a Kalashnikov and joined the guerrillas. After 10 years of bloodshed, the Soviets withdrew, however the civil conflict continued.

In 1992, the Afghan communist authorities collapsed, and the mujahedeen entered Kabul. The rival events turned on each other, and the capital was divided up by checkpoints run by aggressive fighters. It turned too harmful for the employees to work within the Nationwide Museum, on the southern fringe of the town. “The museum closed, and the world fell below the management of the events,” stated Shirazudin Saifi, a retired conservator on the museum. “No person may go there.”

Throughout the conflict, virtually 100 Ghazni marbles, together with the Hamburg panel, disappeared from the federal government’s possession. “The items that have been lacking have been the large, full items,” Rugiadi informed me. Although we can’t be sure, it appears possible that the Hamburg marble ended up on the black
market in Pakistan, which was awash with Afghan antiquities. Throughout the ’90s, commanders and different wartime entrepreneurs invested in heavy
equipment and labour to systematically excavate the richest websites. “That’s when you’ve gotten the looting of web sites throughout the entire nation,” stated Simpson, the British Museum curator.

“What the Ghazni case reveals is that current acquisitions are as problematic as historic acquisitions.”

Traditionally, collectors and museums within the West have been hardly ever involved with – or challenged over – the provenance of antiquities, so long as they have been
legally purchased and offered in their very own vacation spot international locations. That started to vary after 1970, when a UNESCO treaty towards antiquities trafficking made consumers chargeable for checking that artefacts have been legally exported from their international locations of origin. However norms and nationwide legal guidelines modified slowly, spurred by high-profile courtroom circumstances, akin to that of the Italian seller Giacomo Medici, who was accused in 1997 of operating a hoop of tomb raiders and convicted in 2004.

For the marbles that have been taken from the countryside, the shortage of an identifiable former proprietor makes the query of restitution harder. However the Hamburg panel had each a transparent authorized case for its restitution and somebody to return it to – a “traditional theft”, as Reuther, the MKG’s provenance
researcher, termed it.

In October 2019, at a quick ceremony in Hamburg, the museum returned the Ghazni panel to the Afghan Embassy. “There was a sense of aid that this piece was lastly repatriated,” Mörike, the curator, informed me. “What the Ghazni case reveals is that current acquisitions are as problematic as historic acquisitions,” he stated. He questioned why museums wanted to accumulate new antiquities from the artwork market in any respect.

Within the close to future, the Hamburg marble will full its round journey
by jet plane, returning to the Nationwide Museum in Kabul. However will or not it’s protected
there? The spectre of previous destruction hangs over Afghanistan’s future. Throughout my journey to Kabul, I walked across the museum with Saifi, the conservator, and he identified the place smoke marks had been painted over, the discolouration nonetheless seen. Hearth left the museum roofless, its home windows gaping holes. “You may see up prime, proper there, how the museum burned,” he stated. “From the surface, it was only a destroy.” By the tip of the civil conflict, a lot of Kabul appeared the identical manner.

By risking their lives, the museum’s employees members had managed to protect
a lot of a very powerful gadgets from its assortment, such because the Bactrian Hoard, now touring as an exhibition overseas, and so they have been actively searching for the return of extra stolen objects just like the Hamburg marble. “Restitution is essential to us,” Fahim Rahimi, the museum’s present director, informed me. He alluded delicately to the involvement of a few of his nation’s energy brokers in looting. “We’ve to wrestle towards a really tough scenario.”


Tons of of essential objects have been returned to the Kabul museum; tons of extra are nonetheless at giant. Rahimi informed me they have been establishing a cultural safety workplace that may pursue restitution claims overseas. The museum’s archives had burned, making it tough to know precisely what number of objects have been lacking, however a venture to catalogue its holdings, assisted by the College of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, was practically full.

“You will have to keep in mind what occurred to this museum,” Alejandro Gallego, the venture’s subject director, informed me. “That the museum remains to be standing, and that it nonetheless has its objects and artefacts – it’s the epitome of resilience.”

When Gallego confirmed guests across the museum, he would shuttle backwards and forwards among the many varied donor rooms, making an attempt to hyperlink the objects into the acquainted story line from Stone Age to Medieval Age. However amid the reconstructed, preserved and restituted artefacts, an alternate narrative would emerge: of cycles of human endeavour within the face of repeated destruction, with the scars of the constructing and the folks themselves because the displays. “There’s the story that the museum tells,” he stated. “However generally the story that the museum doesn’t inform is extra fascinating.”

Edited model of a narrative first revealed in The New York Instances Journal. © 2021 The New York Instances Firm.

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