St John Simpson, Curator, Middle East
This weekend sees the official hand-over in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul of a large consignment of antiquities which was recently sent there by the British Museum with the logistic support of the British Armed Forces.
These objects included the 20 ivory and bone furniture inlays excavated at Begram which were stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan during the civil war (1992–1994). They were generously acquired and donated by a private individual, and conserved at the British Museum with the support of a grant from Bank of America Merrill Lynch through its Art Conservation Project. These decorative inlays were exhibited last year at the conclusion of our exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, also supported by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
These were not all though. The consignment also included the large carved schist statue of Buddha which was identified in a private collection in Japan, privately bought and donated and again temporarily exhibited at the British Museum last year. Another much smaller private donation was a medieval coin belonging to the twelfth century Ghorid dynasty. The coin had been found on the surface at Bamiyan in 1970 by an English lady who kindly offered it as a donation to the Kabul museum after seeing the exhibition at the British Museum and meeting some of its staff at a Guardian debate hosted here. Last but not least there were as many as 821 additional objects which had been seized by the UK Border Force and the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police, which we had identified as originating in Afghanistan (of which more anon in another post).
The logistics of this return had to be co-ordinated carefully as these were not the only items to travel to Kabul. As part of our exhibition loan agreement, we had undertaken to produce 400 additional copies of our exhibition catalogue, plus another 600 copies specially translated into Dari and Pashto, and we finally received these from the printers in China in April this year. This represents quite a large and heavy stack of parcels!
The timing was finally triggered by a request from Dr Massoudi, Director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, who wished to display the Buddha as part of a larger exhibition celebrating Buddhist art in Afghanistan. Many different parties became involved as it was agreed that the transport would be undertaken by the Ministry of Defence but we had to avoid the Olympic build-up. The details and final stages were kept confidential until after the pieces had been safely collected by Dr Massoudi and his colleagues from the British Armed Forces headquarters at Camp Souter in Kabul on 15 July. We are extremely grateful to all who helped.
A British Armed Forces News video about the return of the objects to Afghanistan
A high profile announcement of their return was made during a joint press conference in Kabul on 19 July by President Hamid Karzai and Prime Minister David Cameron. This was particularly fitting as President Karzai had opened the Afghanistan exhibition at the British Museum on 3 March last year and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office had facilitated the earlier negotiations. Neil MacGregor, the 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”.
Unsurprisingly, our colleagues in Kabul are very pleased and the last word goes to Dr Massoudi: “I am very happy to receive this very fine collection of artefacts … for me all the pieces are very important. All of them tell and show our rich culture and history, but I especially like the Bronze Age collection and the axe we have from this period and the Fire Buddha with flames above his shoulders from the Buddhist period”.