Tuesday 24 August 2021

'Tsunami of Afghan Antiquities' or Business as Usual?

   Louvre Abu Dhabi's   
"Bactrian princess" has
 a 2011 accession date,
 where did it come from?    

Louise Shelley*, Michael Gfoeller The Coming Tsunami of Illicit Antiquities from Afghanistan Inkstick Media August 24th, 2021

The Taliban have long thrived on illicit trade. Most known for the drug trade, they have also been long-time smugglers in antiquities, timber, and minerals. Faced with the loss of foreign aid and access to Afghan accounts overseas, they will escalate their trade in drugs and antiquities as a needed revenue source. In other words, we should expect a flood of illicit Afghan antiquities to reach diverse global markets soon. More than a decade ago, a compelling documentary named “Blood Antiques” recorded the supply chain of antiquities from Taliban-controlled territory in Afghanistan to the high-end antique stores of Brussels. Sellers at the annual Maastricht art fair displayed Gandharan sculptures newly looted from Afghanistan with the dirt still apparent in their crevices. Many moveable treasures of Afghanistan have also flowed to wealthy collectors in the Middle East and Asia, generating significant revenues for the Taliban. [...] While Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade has proven extremely profitable for the Taliban, the group will most likely turn to illicit antiquity trading. Archaeological treasures of numerous epochs can now be monetized by the Taliban who will be in desperate need of funds to keep themselves funded and their newly seized military equipment in shape as seized helicopters, planes, and Humvees need spare parts and often expensive repairs. We may see a tsunami of smuggled antiquities out of Afghanistan in the coming months and years [...] Afghanistan has one of the longest and richest histories of civilization of any country in Asia. Its heritage includes the ancient civilization of Bactria, the conquests of Alexander the Great, the Empire of Demetrius the Great, the Kushan Empire, the civilization of Gandhara, and the Greco-Bactrian kingdoms. From the perspective of Afghan and Western historians and archeologists, this rich heritage is something to be treasured and protected.
It remains to see whether this prediction will become true. In fact as many articles in the media as well as (fewer) in academic sources indicate, the looting of Afghanistan has never stopped, many local warlords also tapped into this source of revenue.

It has become almost traditional to see Gandharan art as an index fossil of "Afghan looting", but of course the core of the polity, and where most of the sculpture-producing monasteries are is the Swat valley in neighbouring Pakistan (and many of them leave the region not across the Hindu Kush, but the port of Karachi). Better to look out for Bactrian objects (not so eagerly collected though, apart from the coins). Another question is whether dealers will risk putting freshly looted Afghan material onto the market as the news unfolds and eyes are turned to the region. Unless they can make up a plausible "old collection provenance" for items, they'd do better to let the middlemen keep their stashes underground for now and "surface" the items in a decade or so when other conflicts, other regions are in the media's eye.   

*Louise Shelley works at George Mason University. She has written on Afghan antiquities smuggling in [Chapter 7 of] Dirty Entanglement: Corruption, Crime and Terrorism (Cambridge University Press, 2015) and co-edited the forthcoming (with Layla Hashemi) Antiquities Smuggling in the Real and Virtual World.

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