Stolen artefacts returned to the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul

843 heritage objects have been returned to the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul with the assistance of the British Museum with help from the Ministry of Defence.

The objects include items made in 3 separate seizures by the UK Border Force as they were being smuggled into the UK, as well as another group from other investigations by the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police. These objects were identified as originating in Afghanistan by the British Museum and were stored at the Museum for safekeeping and recording until their return to Kabul. Additional objects were saved by private individuals. These include exquisite examples of the Begram Ivories, which were featured in the exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch at the British Museum in 2011 and an important sculpture of Buddha. Both were stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan during the civil war (1992-1994) and found their way onto the black market. The consignment also includes a coin found at Bamiyan in 1970 and presented by the finder to the National Museum of Afghanistan after seeing the exhibition.

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).

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.”

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.

Notes to editors

Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World was shown in Room 35 at the British Museum 3 March – 17 July 2011. This exhibition was a unique opportunity to see an exceptional collection of over 200 objects showing how ancient Afghanistan was at the heart of a cultural crossroads. The objects were on loan from the National Museum in Kabul, while under restoration. The exhibition featured precious objects drawn from some of the most important sites in the country. Each told a story of how the inhabitants traded with or were influenced by the fashions of their ancient neighbours. The core of the exhibition drew on excavated finds from the Greek frontier city of Ai Khanum on the Oxus, which had been founded in the 3rd century BC by a successor of Alexander the Great, some of the contents of a sealed strongroom from a 1st-century capital of a local Kushan ruler, and gold ornaments from nomad graves at Tillya Tepe. Together they illustrated the relationship between settled and nomadic communities, and the fragility of cultural heritage. The exhibition was supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

An accompanying catalogue was published by British Museum Press: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Edited by Fredrik Hiebert and Pierre Cambon, March 2011, paperback £25

A specially produced book on the Begram Ivories was also published by British Museum Press: The Begram Hoard: Indian Ivories from Afghanistan, St John Simpson, March 2011, paperback £7.99. The publication was sponsored by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

About Bank of America Merrill Lynch and the Arts

Developing substantive solutions for social and environmental challenges is at the core of Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s mission, and the arts and culture platform is a key component of the company’s integrated corporate responsibility strategy.

Bank of America Merrill Lynch helps a broad spectrum of arts programmes thrive, encompassing sponsorships, community grants and loans to museums from the company’s own art collection. The Bank of America Merrill Lynch Art Conservation Project provides grants for the restoration of paintings, sculptures, archaeological or architectural pieces that are significant to the cultural heritage of a country or region or important to the history of art in order to preserve them for future generations.

Current and upcoming sponsorships also include, Americans in Florence: Sargent and the American Impressionists at the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence (March – July 2012), Jeff Koons: The Painter & The Sculptor at Schirn Kunsthalle and the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt (June – September 2012) and Roy Lichtenstein at Tate Modern, London, opening in February 2013. The company is Season Sponsor of the Old Vic Theatre in London, as well as Global Sponsor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which travelled to Russia and Italy this year.

Through the company’s Art in Our Communities® programme, the Bank of America Collection has been converted into a unique community resource. The collection has grown in size and scope in recent decades with artworks from numerous legacy institutions, and offers museums and non-profit galleries the opportunity to borrow complete or customised exhibitions at no cost. This helps to secure vital revenue for those institutions that may lack sufficient resources to fully curate and manage exhibitions on their own, and also guarantees that the collection is shared with as wide an audience as possible. Since its launch in late 2008, more than 50 exhibitions have been loaned to museums around the world. Shows in 2012 include Conversations at the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in Dublin, Shared Space, part of PhotoEspaña 2012, at the Real Jardín Botánico in Madrid (June – July 2012), Andy Warhol: The Portfolios at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London (June – September 2012) travelling to the Museo del Novecento in Milan in October 2013, and Gaze: The Changing Face of Portrait Photography, at Istanbul Modern Museum (October 2012 -
January 2013).

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