September 26, 2023

For half a century, war, anarchy, and upheaval have robbed Afghanistan of tens of thousands of Buddhist and Hindu antiquities, some of which are more than 1,800 years old.

Many of these items hit western markets in the 1990s and early 2000s, British Museum curator St. John Simpson told the New York Times last month. “And all of these,” he said, “were almost certainly illegally exported or stolen.”

On Monday, 33 of these $ 1.8 million antiques were presented to Afghan Ambassador Roya Rahmani by the Manhattan Attorney’s Office and the Department of Homeland Security in a ceremony in New York.

The artifacts were part of a hoard of 2,500 objects valued at $ 143 million that were confiscated in a dozen raids between 2012 and 2014 by Subhash Kapoor, a shamed Manhattan art dealer currently jailed for smuggling and theft in India.

When a grateful Ms. Rahmani received the items, many of which were delicate heads made of stucco, clay, and a soft stone known as slate, she nonetheless warned, “The environment in which the prized antiquities of Afghanistan can be looted is the same in which it resides the persistence of conflict. “

“Human traffickers are not only depriving Afghanistan of its history,” she added. “You are continuing a situation where peace is not manifesting and the region is not stabilizing. Looting Afghanistan’s past is looting Afghanistan’s future. “

Much of the destruction and looting of Afghan relics and religious icons took place under the Taliban, who destroyed the famous 6th-century Buddhas of Bamiyan, a pair of giant carvings. In 2001, faced with near-universal condemnation, officials blew up the works that stood in high niches carved from a steep sandstone cliff.

The objects returned on Monday will be housed in the National Museum in Kabul. Afghan officials said they are confident that they can now protect their museums and cultural institutions from looting and smuggling.

According to UNESCO, “the Afghan authorities have taken important steps” to prevent theft, smuggling and desecration of cultural property. These steps include a separate new police force tasked with protecting cultural sites, modern museum security systems, and educational campaigns to convince anyone who finds lost or forgotten relics to turn them over to the government.

During the ceremony, the Afghan Ambassador praised District Attorney Cy Vance Jr.’s office for organizing the return. Mr. Vance’s antique trading division, overseen by Assistant District Attorney Matthew Bogdanos, said it has recovered several thousand stolen antiques valued at more than $ 175 million from more than a dozen nations over the past decade.

As of August, the unit has monitored the return of 338 objects to seven nations, including Nepal, Sri Lanka, Egypt and Pakistan. More are to be sent back as soon as the countries involved have resolved travel and transport problems related to the pandemic.

Crimes involving looted and stolen religious relics, Vance said, “not only disrupt the fabric of nations, but also deprive millions of believers around the world of the earliest sacred symbols of their beliefs.”