Tuesday, 7 October 2008

At a Crossroad of Civilization: money into whose pockets?

The global market in unprovenanced artefacts is voracious and many means are adopted by the less-that-ethical to cash in on this. In Afghanistan, the “Crossroads of Civilzation”, looting and smuggling have been going on for years, especially during the civil war of 1992-1996 and then under the rule of the Taliban (1996-2001). Sadly, the US-led invasion of 2001 “Operation Enduring Freedom”, and the presence there of a UN peace-keeping force have done little to curb it. It is thought that most of the looted items are smuggled to neighbouring Pakistan before reaching private collectors in rich Gulf or Western countries. US legislators were preparing to pass “H.R. 915 [109th]: Cultural Conservation of the Crossroads of Civilization Act”
to prevent the US trade from benefiting from the undocumented movement of cultural property from Afghanistan, but in the end failed to do so.

Last week the National Museum at Herat the second largest city in Afghanistan was robbed. The thieves stole 22 museum exhibits including clay, metal and stone artefacts from the pre-Islamic, Ghaznavid and Timurid eras. Two suspects were taken into custody for interrogation. One of them, it was admitted at a press conference last week, has died in prison “under unclear circumstances”. Officials from the Afghan Ministry of Culture are suggesting that he was murdered to silence him and treats this as evidence that they are dealing with very dangerous criminals (they use the term “gang”).

Cases like this once again raise the question of the association between the trade in undocumented antiquities and criminal activity. Into whose pockets are the proceeds from the sale of such items going? Opponents of HR915 and other such measures to help clean up this trade should be required by concerned members of the public to address that question.

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