Ranging from Bronze Age grave goods and 1st-century ivory carvings to a rare 2nd/3rd-century sculpture of Buddha, and Medieval coins, the 843 objects reflect almost all periods of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage from the 3rd millennium BC onwards. Many are believed to have entered the black market during Afghanistan’s civil war in 1992-1994, when more than two thirds of the exhibits at the National Museum in Kabul were stolen or destroyed.
Some of the items were seized by the UK Border Force while being smuggled into the UK, while others were recovered during investigations by the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police. After being identified as originating in Afghanistan, the artefacts were stored at the British Museum for safekeeping and recording until their return to Kabul.
This brings the total number of looted objects restored to the National Museum to over 2,330, following another effort by the UK Border Force, British Museum and International Red Cross in 2009, which saw the repatriation of 1,490 seized objects.
Among the artefacts returned on 15 July were examples of the Begram Ivories – delicate 1st-century carvings designed to decorate Indian furniture and feared lost in the civil war. Identified on the black market in 2010, the ivories have since been conserved at the British Museum and featured in their temporary exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, in 2011.
Other items include Bronze Age Bactrian statuettes and cosmetic flasks; Greco-Bactrian, Kushan and Medieval Islamic coins; and Islamic metal and pottery vessels.
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, with both parties agreeing to continue collaborative efforts to identify and return objects to Kabul which had been stolen during the civil war or otherwise illegally exported.