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The British Museum and the Art Loss Register help to return important Kushan sculpture to Afghanistan
Important 2nd century limestone sculpture will go on temporary display before returning to Afghanistan.

LONDON.- The British Museum and the Art Loss Register have worked together to identify and preserve an Afghan limestone sculpture depicting humped bulls which was stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan. The sculpture was illegally removed from the country and offered for sale through an online auction house in the UK.

It was offered for sale in 2019 by Timeline Auctions but withdrawn after the Art Loss Register reported it to the Metropolitan Police Service (Art and Antiques Unit). Its provenance and stolen status was subsequently confirmed by the British Museum and National Museum of Afghanistan and the sculpture brought to the Museum for safekeeping. The National Museum of Afghanistan have kindly agreed to allow this important sculpture to be put on public display for the first-time outside Afghanistan and prior to its return and display in Kabul. The sculpture will be officially returned via the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

The carved limestone corner block was excavated by a French archaeological expedition in the 1950s at the important site of Surkh Kotal in northern Afghanistan. It shows a reclining humped bull with its face turned to the viewer and the front of a second bull on the left. It was part of a composite frieze with other blocks showing human figures and bulls in some form of ceremony. These probably originally decorated the inner part of the sanctuary of a temple, although all the blocks were later scattered and none were found in their original position. The site and temple date to about the 2nd century AD when this region of Afghanistan was part of the Kushan empire which stretched as far as northern India. The temple is most famous for the discovery there of a monumental inscription in Bactrian language which refers to the reconstruction of the temple’s security and water supply, and a sculpture showing the great Kushan king Kanishka I.

Following their discovery, the blocks were taken to Kabul where they were registered in the National Museum of Afghanistan and published as part of that collection. However, all were stolen during the Afghan civil war (1992–1994) when Kabul was besieged by different armies and the museum was on the front line. Many other objects were also lost or destroyed during this period, and the statue of Kanishka was badly damaged by Taliban extremists in 2001: although that has now restored, this is the first stolen piece from the Surkh Kotal temple to be recovered.

The British Museum and the National Museum of Afghanistan have worked very closely together since the restoration of an internationally recognised government in 2003. The British Museum helped install the first conservation studio in the Kabul museum and has provided training for curators and conservators. Since 2009, the British Museum has identified and returned over 2,300 antiquities of all periods which were illegally excavated at sites across Afghanistan and trafficked abroad, but seized and investigated by the UK Border Force, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs and the Metropolitan Police Service. The National Museum of Afghanistan is fully open to the public and some of these objects are already back on display in Kabul.

Hartwig Fischer Director of the British Museum said: “The identification, return and display of this sculpture to Kabul is another very important step in the reconstruction of the rich cultural heritage of Afghanistan after decades of conflict, destruction and loss. The Museum works extensively with law enforcement agencies and a wide range of other partners to try to combat the trafficking of illicit material from countries which have suffered so much from conflict in recent years”.

Fahim Rahimi Director, National Museum of Afghanistan said: “I am happy that we are able to recover another missing piece from the collection of the National Museum of Afghanistan. We thank the British Museum for their cooperation with us on this regard. As the result of our cooperation many lost objects from Afghanistan have been recovered in the UK and I hope that not only customs, but also museums and other private collections, will continue to help us return objects from Afghanistan in this way”.

James Ratcliffe, the Art Loss Register said “We are delighted that our identification of this piece being offered for sale led to its seizure and look forward to its return to Kabul. We would like to thank the Metropolitan Police for their swift action in seizing it following that identification, and the British Museum for their subsequent assistance. As so often, this is a clear demonstration of the value of cooperation between various bodies in pursuing looted antiquities.”

DI Jim Wingrave “The Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiques Unit is delighted that this piece has been identified and can be returned to the museum from which is was stolen. We would like to thank everyone involved in recovery of this unique artefact, which is an example of the positive results that can be achieved through cooperation. Unfortunately, there are many other artefacts that are still missing and we encourage anyone with knowledge of the whereabouts of stolen property to contact the police.”

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