HAMBURG.- The Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg
is arranging to return an Afghan marble wall panel it purchased in good faith at a Paris auction in 2013. The panel belonged to a 78-part frieze dating to the twelfth century that once adorned the inner courtyard of the Royal Palace of Sultan Masud III in the town of Ghazni, Afghanistan. At the time it was purchased, very little reliable information was available on the panels provenance that would have put a damper on the enthusiasm for the aesthetic quality of this work of art. Although it has still not been possible to trace with certainty when and how the panel came onto the international art market, there is no doubt that it meets the criteria for looted art. The MKG has therefore been working since 2014 on the restitution of the panel, assisted by Germanys cultural property authority (Kulturgutschutz Deutschland) and the German Foreign Office. In the summer of 2018, an initial meeting took place between the museum, representatives from the Afghan Embassy, and the German authorities. To accompany the restitution negotiations, the MKG is displaying the marble panel in its permanent exhibition Looted Art? Provenance Research on the Collections of the MKG. To show its current status, the panel is presented already half-packed in a transport box set between the two large display cases, ready to be returned. In volume 4 of its Looted Art? series, the MKG summarizes the research conducted so far on the history of the panels loss and acquisition and describes its significance in detail.
Prof. Dr. Sabine Schulze, Director of the MKG: In our permanent exhibition Looted Art?, which currently shows Benin bronzes and silver objects from former Jewish possessions, we deal with the museums acquisitions and additions from the past. In the case of the marble panel from the palace of Masud III in Ghazni, Afghanistan, we now have to critically re-examine our own decision. Looted art is not only a historical phenomenon, that much is certain. Looted art is offered on the market every year. To avoid falling into this trap, we have to do some rethinking. Complete, encyclopaedic collections of cultural exemplars have become obsolete. In this digital age, we must increasingly take advantage of the data available on the internet and choose to buy contemporary pieces in close contact with artists and producers. It was after all for the benefit of active artists and designers that museums were originally founded, especially those focusing on decorative arts. Provenance research must not stop with the year 1945. In particular for our collections of Islamic and East Asian art, a critical re-assessment of our acquisitions is still pending. We can all agree that we do not wish to show anything in our museum that does not rightfully belong to us.
When the MKG purchased the panel from the French auction house Boisgirard-Antonini on 28 November 2013, the provenance seemed unobjectionable based on the information available. In general, auctions leave only limited scope for buyers to do their own research. The time between the publication of the catalogue and the auction date is often short, as was the case here as well. It was therefore no longer possible to reliably verify the provenance of the panel through our own research by the date of the auction. The existence of export licenses and checking the Art Loss Register do not offer sufficient certainty. Today, extensive research results can be found on the internet, but in 2013 these research options were not yet available. Shortly after the panel was purchased, Stefan Heidemann, Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Hamburg, gave us a decisive clue about the object: a 2007 dissertation written by the Islamic scholar Martina Rugiadi (available online since 2015) mentions the panel and traces its provenance up to 1978. In the course of further research conducted with the assistance of the Middle Eastern History and Culture unit of the Department of Asia-Africa Studies at the University of Hamburg, the panel was traced to excavations carried out jointly by archaeologists from Afghanistan and Italy between 1957 and 1966. The archaeological finds were under the custody of the Afghan antiquities authority. For conservation and security reasons, they were removed from the excavation site and handed over to the Rawza Museum of Islamic Art in Ghazni, which is under the control of the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. It was agreed between the Afghan authorities and their Italian partners that some of the finds should go to Italy. They were legally exported and are now housed in the Museo Nazionale dArte Orientale in Rome. The excavation documentation available online today credibly proves that the Hamburg panel was given the inventory number C3733 at the time and was in the collection of the Rawza Museum of Islamic Art in Ghazni. Historical photos of the excavation provide additional corroboration of this provenance.
The invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Army in 1979 led to a destabilisation of the country. The region around Ghazni was particularly affected. The decision was therefore made in the 1980s to transfer the collection of the Rawza Museum of Islamic Art to an art depot for safekeeping. During the relocation and transfer of the collections, the Hamburg panel was apparently stolen or moved elsewhere, and it showed up on the Parisian art market in the early 1990s. The exact details of its loss have yet to be clarified.
Publication: Volume 4 of the MKGs Looted Art? series will be published to accompany the presentation, titled Looted Art? A Marble Panel from the Afghan Royal Palace in Ghazni in the Collection of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, edited by Sabine Schulze and Silke Reuther, with essays by Julio Bendzu-Sarmiento, Claus-Peter Haase, Stefan Heidemann, Frank Hildebrandt, Tobias Mörike, Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, Silke Reuther, and Sabine Schulze, featuring illustrations by Moshtari Hilal, approx. 84 pages, with around 85 illustrations, in German only, ISBN 978-3-923859887, 9.90 EUR.