17 Jan 2020

Recovered Kushan sculpture to be repatriated to Afghanistan

The ALR has worked with the Metropolitan Police and the British Museum to return the sculpture to the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul

The Art Loss Register (ALR) is pleased to announce the forthcoming repatriation of a sculpture to Afghanistan. The fragment has been recovered after being offered for sale at TimeLine Auctions, a UK auction house, in late 2019.

The sculpture – a carved limestone corner block – will be returned to the National Museum in Kabul in the coming months following its recovery. In the meantime, it will be on display at the British Museum in London to highlight this important issue and to offer hope that such cultural property can be recovered.

The fragment was identified in the course of the ALR’s routine catalogue checks for more than 120 auction houses worldwide. Following identification, the ALR contacted the Metropolitan Police’s Art & Antiques Unit, TimeLine Auctions and the British Museum to facilitate its return. It had originally been registered on the ALR database as part of our ongoing pro bono project to incorporate large numbers of objects into the database that should remain ‘in situ’ either on site or in a museum. This recent push to register museum and site inventories - especially for those at risk - has been taken on by the ALR as part of the international efforts required to fight the illicit trade in cultural property. These efforts included registering items such as this, which was included in Francine Tissot and UNESCO’s Catalogue of the National Museum of Afghanistan, 1931-1985.

The work of archaeologists and museums to compile and publish inventories is crucial in tracking down stolen cultural property - as has Francine Tissot's UNESCO catalogue in this case

The corner block was excavated by the Delegation Archeologique Française en Afghanistan in the 1950s at the site of Surkh Kotal in Ancient Bactria. The site is one of the most important known from the Kushan Empire, which ruled over the region from the 1st – 4th centuries AD. A famous statue of the Kushan king Kanishka, which was destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 but recently restored, was also found at the site. The block itself was likely stolen from the National Museum during the Afghan civil war (1992-1994).

Hundreds of archaeological objects from Afghanistan reported missing or at risk are registered on the ALR database, alongside tens of thousands from other countries. The entire database now includes more than 700,000 objects reported as lost stolen or subject to a dispute from across the world.

The sculpture's entry in the 2006 publication: Catalogue of the National Museum of Afghanistan, 1931-1985

On the occasion of this return, the ALR’s James Ratcliffe said: “We are delighted that our identification of this piece being offered for sale led to its seizure and look forward to its return to Kabul. We would like to thank the Metropolitan Police for their swift action in seizing it following that identification, and the British Museum for their subsequent assistance. As so often, this is a clear demonstration of the value of cooperation between various bodies in pursuing looted antiquities.”

Hartwig Fischer Director of the British Museum: “The identification, return and display of this sculpture to Kabul is another very important step in the reconstruction of the rich cultural heritage of Afghanistan after decades of conflict, destruction and loss. The Museum works extensively with law enforcement agencies and a wide range of other partners to try to combat the trafficking of illicit material from countries which have suffered so much from conflict in recent years”.

Fahim Rahimi Director, National Museum of Afghanistan: “I am happy that we are able to recover another missing piece from the collection of the National Museum of Afghanistan. We thank the British Museum for their cooperation with us on this regard. As the result of our cooperation many lost objects from Afghanistan have been recovered in the UK and I hope that not only customs, but also museums and other private collections, will continue to help us return objects from Afghanistan in this way”.

DI Jim Wingrave: “The Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiques Unit is delighted that this piece has been identified and can be returned to the museum from which is was stolen. We would like to thank everyone involved in recovery of this unique artefact, which is an example of the positive results that can be achieved through cooperation. Unfortunately, there are many other artefacts that are still missing and we encourage anyone with knowledge of the whereabouts of stolen property to contact the police.”