Saturday, 18 January 2020

Wide-eyed and 'Innocent' on the Grey Market


A fragment of a temple relief looted from an Afghan museum  30 years ago has resurfaced on the antiquities market, where it was spotted on a British auctioneer’s website and investigated by the Metropolitan police. It is now being repatriated (Dalya Alberge  'Met police and British Museum help Afghans recover looted ancient masterpiece' The Guardian  18 Jan 2020). 
Carved in the 2nd century AD from a yellowish limestone, the sculpture of two bulls was excavated in the 1950s in northern Afghanistan only to be looted during the civil war in the early 1990s, following the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Where the bulls have been since then is unknown, but they were spotted by the Art Loss Register (ALR), which has an international database of stolen artworks, on the website of Timeline Auctions, and reported to the police. The seller immediately relinquished ownership and its status was confirmed by the British Museum, where Dr St John Simpson, a senior curator, recognised the sculpture immediately. “It’s a very well-known, unique piece,” he told the Observer. 
The fragment is listed in the Catalogue of the National Museum of Afghanistan 1931-1985 by Francine Tissot, published by UNESCO in Feb 2007 (p. 57, K.P. Sk. Ff 117 1a and 1b)  where it is pretty clearly visible. This publication is available online.  It was one of a number of pieces from the same site in the museum, but as Simpson notes, it is the only one of them to have been recovered so far. About 75% of Kabul Museum’s antiquities have been destroyed or looted. Presumably these c. 70 000 museum objects too are mostly floating around the voracious no-questions-asked antiquities market, each and every one of them having been 'innocently' bought (no-questions-asked) and sold a number of times already. Simpson said the site this museum object had  come from had been
"totally ransacked and looted and pitted during the civil war period. So it’s in a complete mess now. “Archaeological sites are even more vulnerable than the built museum environment at times of loss of central control. There’s not an archaeological site in Afghanistan that’s been untouched by this wave of looting.” It makes the recovery of such sculptures all the more important, he said, “but it’s tinged with inevitable sadness that at times of conflict, museums and places of culture are deliberately targeted.”

So, in fact there re massive numbers of objects lurking in the greyness of this same no-questions-asked market.

There is some confusion in the article. Above it says that it was ALR that spotted the object 'on the website of Timeline Auctions, and reported to the police'. Just below that, it says something else.
Christopher Wren of Timeline said the auction house employed the ALR “to check all Western Asiatic items submitted to us for possible sale, so it was directly at our instigation that the piece was identified.” He added: “We also liaise closely with the Art Squad of the London Metropolitan Police and with other authorities in our constant endeavours to ensure that stolen or looted pieces are not offered and can be returned to their proper home. [...] The vendor in this case innocently came into possession of the piece many years ago and, on being informed of the origin… immediately relinquished any claim to ownership and agreed that it must be returned to the Museum at Kabul.” 
How could they otherwise? Yet, had the Museum catalogue not been published, and had the illustrations from it not been copied into the ALR (which is what I imagine had happened), and this was one of the items items looted from unexcavated parts of the site in the same civil war, it would have turned up on Timeline's doorstep with no guilt-inducing ALR record, and no way for any 'art squad' to prosecute ('old European collection, innit, guv') and then what would have happened? How far do those 'constant endeavours to ensure that stolen or looted pieces are not offered' go into researching the background of each and every item offered? (They missed the picture in the Kabul Museum catalogue for this one.) On accepting this item for auction, with what collecting history was Timeline presented? Where is it supposed to have been before being 'innocently' acquired by an unnamed owner? Has that owner's collection been scrutinised by the art squad to see what else is in it? Did the art squad follow it up by investigating the person who had sold it to them? And where actually had it been between being looted from Kabul Museum in the early 1990s and its surfacing and through whose hands did it pass?

Location of site
Surkh Kotal (also called Chashma-i Shir or Sar-i Chashma), is located in southern and consists of monumental constructions, temples mostly, made during the rule of the Kushans and is a major site for understanding this period of the region's history. The site  was excavated between 1952 and 1966 by Prof. Schlumberger of the Délégation Archéologique Française en Afghanistan. 


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