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Opinion

How one looted artifact tells the story of modern Afghanistan

By: Matthieu Aikins

In November 2013, Nora von Achenbach, curator at the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg, Germany, examined the catalog for an upcoming auction by the Paris-based dealer Boisgirard-Antonini. The glossy pages offered a bevy of antiquities for sale: bronze figurines, jewelry and a statue from ancient Egypt estimated at more than 300,000 euros, or almost half a million dollars. But von Achenbach was interested in a pale marble tablet, carved with arabesques, vines and Persian script. Lot 104, an “important epigraphic panel with interlacings from the palace of Mas’ud III,” was dated to the 12th century, from the capital of the Ghaznavid Empire, in what is today Afghanistan.
Curators must be wary of buying fake or stolen art, particularly when it comes to ancient artifacts, which may have been illegally excavated in countries plagued by war and corruption. Boisgirard-Antonini’s catalog simply stated that the marble’s provenance was “a private French collection.” But von Achenbach — who did not respond to requests for an interview — may have been reassured by the lengthy description of the archaeological site where the marble was originally found, the royal palace in Ghazni, where a legal Italian-led excavation broke ground in the 1950s. Moreover, as the catalog noted, three panels from the same site were held by the Brooklyn Museum, San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum and the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. Von Achenbach decided that the marble could form part of her museum’s collection in Hamburg. She sent in a bid, the equivalent of around $50,000, and won.
Boisgirard-Antonini shipped the panel to Germany. While it was still in storage at the museum, von Achenbach invited Stefan Heidemann, an expert on Islamic art at Hamburg University, to view the panel. Heidemann thought it was magnificent, but unease crept over him as he wondered how, exactly, it had come from Afghanistan to Europe. He had worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where, as chance would have it, a colleague of his, Martina Rugiadi, wrote her doctoral thesis on the Italian excavation in Ghazni, and the fate of the marbles during the war years that followed.
When Heidemann got in touch, Rugiadi told him the Hamburg marble had indeed been stolen from the Afghan government. Numbered C3733 during the excavation, the marble disappeared during Afghanistan’s civil war, when the country’s museums were robbed by guerrillas. Moreover, Rugiadi had already heard about the auction, and had emailed Pierre Antonini to warn him around the time of the sale. He replied asking for more information. But the auction house shipped the panel to Hamburg anyway, without informing the museum of the evidence that it was stolen.
“This I find quite a scandal,” Heidemann told me.
As it so happened, Claude Boisgirard was being investigated in connection with a series of thefts from the venerable Parisian auction house Hotel Drouot, where he spent decades as an auctioneer; he would be given a 10-month suspended sentence for fraud and conspiracy in 2016. (Boisgirard-Antonini did not respond to requests for comment.) The Hamburg museum notified German authorities, but did not pursue legal action against Boisgirard-Antonini; it kept the marble in storage and out of sight.
In August 2018, I received an email from Tobias Mörike, a curator of Islamic Art, introducing himself and the marble. Von Achenbach had retired in 2017; the museum was now planning to exhibit the marble as part of a series called “Looted Art?” — a mea culpa, of sorts — and wanted to return the artifact to the Afghan government. There were still many unanswered questions that surrounded the marble, he told me. How had it gone from the hands of looters to the showrooms of Paris? And what did this say about the other Ghazni marbles held by prestigious institutions? “It appears that not only none of these museums cared about the provenance of their objects,” he wrote. “They all might go back to the same source.” Mörike had read my stories on smugglers and corruption in Afghanistan. Would I be interested in visiting for the opening of the exhibition?
Two months later, I stood in central Hamburg in front of the three-story former vocational school that housed the MKG, as it is known by its German initials. The museum was founded in the late 19th century, when Hamburg was a thriving entrepôt for the expanding German empire, importing raw materials like rubber, sugar and ivory from colonies around the globe. Silke Reuther, the museum’s provenance researcher, led me on a tour of the collection. Dressed in a rakish jacket and trousers with piping, she explained that, like the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the MKG was intended, in an era before Wikipedia and Google, as a reference for design and manufacturing, illustrated with a collection of masterworks spanning geography and time: Kashan tiles, Etruscan vases, Coptic funerary-cloth embroidery. Occasionally, she pointed out the little orange tags she had affixed to certain exhibits — much to the irritation of some of her fellow curators — intended as footnotes about how that artifact came to the museum. “The question I ask of every object,” she said, “is, ‘Are you stolen or not?’”
If we listen, objects have their own stories to tell. Even the phones in our pockets could testify to oceans crossed and hands that labored. But works of art speak as individuals. The question of provenance — the chain of ownership from creation to the present — was originally concerned with establishing authenticity, and therefore value. You might know that a painting was really a Velázquez, say, if you could find its original bill of sale, or that a desk was a genuine antique if it was recorded in a 17th-century will. But in recent decades, provenance research has come to be wielded against the perceived wrongs of the past. Like many professions pushed by a new generation of activists and scholars, the museum world is coming to grips with thorny issues of power and inequality. One of them is the concentration of valuable antiquities from around the world in the hands of Western museums. A fierce debate is underway about whether some of these objects should be returned to their former owners or places of origin, in what is known as “restitution.”
The paradigmatic case for restitution is the Nazis’ extensive looting and expropriation of art during World War II, some of it for a grand museum that Adolf Hitler dreamed of establishing after the war in his hometown, Linz — one that would demonstrate, in a line of masterpieces beginning with classical Greece, the evolution of world civilization into its Aryan apex. At a conference in 1998, 44 countries, including the United States and Germany, reached a consensus that, if an artwork was discovered to have been stolen by the Nazis, it should be returned to its original owners or their heirs. At the MKG, Reuther and I stopped in front of a glass case full of silverware that had been confiscated by the Nazis, the first exhibit in the “Looted Art?” series. “It’s all from Jewish families,” she said gravely, and then smiled as she recounted how just two weeks earlier, a family had flown in from Vancouver to retrieve their grandfather’s kiddush cup.
The Nazis are a subject that nearly everyone can agree on. Their evil is understood. But the Afghan marble I had come to see raises uncomfortable questions about the present, and how the collection practices of museums relate to wars overseas.
Mörike, a poised young man with the beardish scruff of a doctoral student, was waiting in a hallway near the museum entrance. An orange-painted pallet with a crate had been placed on the floor, as if prepared for shipping, to indicate the museum’s plans for restitution. Inside, nestled amid a raft of packing material, was the carved marble panel, two feet long. Crouching down, I saw that the sandy-colored stone was delicately veined and faintly translucent. The panel was carved in relief in three sections: At the bottom, there was a delicate band of interwoven vines; in the middle, arabesques formed a pattern of three-leaved curls; and the top held a fragment of Persian, in Kufic script: wa alam-e sufli, ” … and the world of the dead.”
A thousand years earlier, the Ghaznavid emperors and their horsemen ruled an empire stretching from Iran to India. The words in stone were part of a verse extolling the dynasty that scrolled along the wall of the imperial court. It was there that the poet Ferdowsi, whose stature in Persian letters is comparable to Shakespeare’s in English, presented his epic work, the Shahnameh, to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni. The Hamburg marble was a fragment of that distant universe.
Today, pieces of the palace’s architecture are scattered around the world. Using old pictures taken by the archaeological mission, as well as auction records and catalogs, Rugiadi and her Italian colleagues had compiled a database of the Ghazni marbles, listing their original location and, if known, their current one. It was available online, and browsing it, I was surprised to see more of these panels at museums in the United States, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Some had been stolen from the Afghan government; others were taken from sites in the countryside and spirited abroad.
Decades of conflict have devastated Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries. Looters have stripped its archaeological sites bare. Its rich ancient history has been sold at auction to the world’s museums and private collectors. “There are tens of thousands of objects from Afghanistan that entered the market in the mid-1990s,” St John Simpson, a curator at the British Museum who studies antiquities trafficking, told me, “and all of those were almost certainly illegally exported or stolen.”
If you encounter these artifacts in a museum or gallery, they may appear without much information on how they got there. Seeing a beautiful object in a glass case, you might not think of empty tombs in a faraway country. But because many of the Ghazni marbles in the Italian database are epigraphic, they can be identified by the writing unique to each of them. We can match the artifacts in museums with photos that show the marbles as they once were, installed in local mosques or arrayed at the excavated palace in Ghazni, back before the war began. We can know their past, which is also our own. The marbles tell a story of theft and violence, and pose the question: Who owns Afghanistan’s history?
In the summer of 2019, I flew to Kabul to investigate the marbles’ journey. Fighting raged between the government and insurgents; even as American troops withdrew, the violence was getting worse. People fled their homes and went hungry; looters scoured the countryside for artifacts.
One day, I got a call from Ghulam Rajabi, a native of Ghazni who worked on the original Italian dig that excavated the Hamburg marble, saying that he had arrived in the capital. Amid the crowds of shoppers on Qala-e Fatullah’s main street, I spotted an elderly, snow-bearded man leaning on a cane, wearing the heavy white turban of a rural elder. It was Rajabi, who had just made the short but dangerous trip from Ghazni City. We went to a restaurant nearby; he handed me a copy of the book he’d written in Persian recounting the history of the excavations in Ghazni. When I inquired about the drive, he shook his head. “It’s terrible. There’s been so many explosions that the road is destroyed.”
Rajabi was a young man when they unearthed the marbles; he was 81 now. He grew up the son of a poor cobbler, and expected to follow his father’s trade until the Italians arrived, offering good wages to those who could work carefully with a pick and shovel. “I was with them from the beginning to the end,” he told me. Legal archaeological excavations began in Afghanistan after the 1919 war of independence freed the country from the diplomatic isolation imposed by the British. At the time, little physical evidence existed to back up the fabulous legends of the country’s three millenniums as a crossroads of empire. When the Italian archaeological mission arrived in Ghazni in 1956, it was a sleepy provincial capital several hours from Kabul, with mud-walled homes that lacked electricity and running water. But it was known, from historical sources, to have been the seat of Sultan Mahmud and his heirs; it was there that, after centuries of Arab dominance, the Persian language was revived in literature and government. The only visible traces that remained were two elaborate brick minarets that dominated the arid plain below the town.
Three hundred yards to the east of the largest minaret, the archaeologists discovered the remains of a complex built around a courtyard, with pillars and vaulted passageways. When they unearthed its splendid marble décor, the Italians were convinced they had found the royal palace constructed by Mas’ud III, Mahmud’s great-grandson.
Under the agreement between the Italian mission and the Afghan government, a portion of the excavated antiquities were shipped to the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale in Rome. The remainder, including the Hamburg panel, numbered C3733, belonged to Afghanistan; some were displayed in the new Rawza Museum housed in a 16th-century mausoleum in Ghazni. Other marbles were shipped to Kabul, where they were exhibited in the Islamic gallery at the National Museum of Afghanistan.
“The special thing about the museum was that all its exhibits were from Afghanistan,” Omara Masoudi, its retired director, told me. The government’s collection contained an extraordinarily diverse array of artifacts: neolithic tools, Bronze Age statuary and Greek, Buddhist, Hindu and Islamic masterpieces. They were used to tell a new story about the Afghan nation; some were sent on traveling exhibitions to Europe, Japan and the United States. “Afghan art, history and culture were being introduced to the world,” Masoudi said. “This was our biggest achievement.”
But Afghanistan’s archaeological treasures also stoked appetites in the West. In the spring of 1978, Johannes Kalter, head of the Oriental Department at the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, set off to visit Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan on what he called a “collecting trip,” which, he wrote in the museum’s journal, “at comparatively low prices brings a wealth of otherwise scarcely obtainable and well-documented material to the museum.”
Today, the Linden Museum owns a number of marbles from Ghazni, five of which were photographed in Afghan holy sites by the Italian mission. When the locals foraged for bricks in the mounds that dotted the plain, sometimes a piece of carved marble turned up, often bearing Quranic inscriptions. These were given places of pride in shrines and mosques, which the Italians documented but for the most part left in situ as they were integral to the sites, like the marble niche with a carved oil lamp that was placed as the mihrab, which indicates the direction of Mecca, at a mosque in Ghazni.
Afghanistan had laws to protect its cultural heritage, but they were not well enforced. At the time, a trade in illegally excavated antiquities was carried out openly in Kabul’s bazaars, which were crowded with foreign buyers, some of them backpackers off the Hippie Trail. You could walk through downtown’s Chicken Street and, along with hand-woven rugs and lapis lazuli bracelets, browse artifacts thousands of years old — if you weren’t shown one of the many fakes on offer.
In Kabul, I spoke to Sayed Jafar, a carpet seller and the son of an antiques dealer. When I showed Jafar photographs of Ghazni marbles, he recognized them immediately. Both his father and their neighbor, Noor Shir, sold antiquities to foreigners during the 1970s, and Jafar recalled seeing such marbles in Shir’s shop. “Noor Shir would encourage people to bring them from Ghazni, to steal them from the shrines and graveyards, and to dig for them,” he told me.
Exporting antiquities required permission from the government, but border controls were lax, and bribery common. It was easy to smuggle artifacts out of the country, if you knew what you were doing. “They would mix old and new items and ship them in metal trunks from the airport, or by land to Pakistan,” said Jafar, who bears a scar on his jaw from the rocket strike that killed his father during the civil war. He recalled that many customers came from the embassies and could smuggle artifacts out of the country as diplomatic cargo, a time-honored method of moving contraband. They would pay prices that astonished the Afghan shopkeepers, the equivalent of thousands of dollars. “Not just Ghaznavid items,” he said. “Buddhist sculptures, Greek items from the north, Nuristani wood carvings.”
During his visit to Kabul, Kalter, who died in 2014, was helped by a young German antiquities dealer named Joerg Drechsel. Jafar didn’t recognize Drechsel’s name, but a senior Afghan archaeologist told me that he remembered Drechsel dealing with the shopkeepers in town: “He was working with Noor Shir.”
When I contacted Drechsel, he denied being involved in illegally exporting antiquities. “In fact I was not involved in the export of objects at all,” he wrote, “since I acquired objects from established dealers and the export clearance and shipping was entirely their responsibility.” He said that his last visit to Afghanistan was in either 1978 or 1979. “The Ghazni marbles were offered to me much later by an intermediary in Germany.”
According to the Linden Museum’s archives, Kalter returned to Stuttgart in 1978 and, over the next two years, arranged for the purchase of more than 20 Afghan marble objects from Drechsel. “This process was done in full transparency and in accordance to the law,” Drechsel wrote to me. “I shared all relevant documentation with the museum.”
Annette Krämer, who is preparing an exhibit on the history of the Linden’s Afghan collection, told me the museum has no record of how the marbles acquired from Drechsel were exported. Drechsel, who worked closely with a number of prominent German institutions, also obtained a Ghazni marble that is currently held by the Reiss Engelhorn Museums in Mannheim, according to the scholarly volume “Islamic Art in Germany”; the museum said its marble was donated by a local carpet dealer in 1988.
The Italian database shows that several other museums besides the Linden hold marbles taken from holy sites. The David Collection, a private museum in Copenhagen, owns the marble mihrab from the mosque in Ghazni, acquired in 1979. In the United States, the Brooklyn Museum and San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum both acquired panels in the 1980s that the Italians had photographed in situ. The Brooklyn Museum said it had no information on how its panel came to the United States; the David Collection said it did not acquire its marble from Drechsel but provided no further details. Zac Rose, a spokesman for the museum in San Francisco, said that when the panel was donated close to 40 years ago, the museum presumed the piece left Afghanistan legally, but today “our response is categorically different — now we would not accept any artwork without thorough documentation of the path it took from its place of origin to the museum.” He added that the museum is “systematically reviewing” objects with unclear provenance in its collection.
Could these marbles have been legally exported from Afghanistan? Selling cultural property to foreigners was completely forbidden by Afghan law after 1980; before that, exporting antiquities required written permission, which, according to Carla Grissman, who worked with the Kabul Museum and who died in 2011, the government stopped issuing in 1964.
“Our main objective was preserving an endangered cultural heritage for future generations,” Drechsel wrote to me, adding that he’d long since left the antiquities trade. At the Linden Museum, Krämer’s project, titled “Entangled: Stuttgart-Afghanistan,” will solicit participation from both Afghans and Germans, in an attempt to address the “highly ambivalent facets” of the past.
In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The countryside rose against it, and American-supplied arms fanned the flames of war higher. The Italian mission stopped coming to Ghazni; Rajabi traded his shovel for a Kalashnikov and joined the guerrillas. After 10 years of bloodshed, the Soviets withdrew, but the civil war continued. In 1992, the Afghan communist government collapsed, and the mujahedeen entered Kabul. The rival parties turned on one another, and the capital was divided up by checkpoints run by aggressive fighters. It became too dangerous for the staff to work in the National Museum, on the southern edge of the city. “The museum closed, and the area fell under the control of the parties,” said Shirazudin Saifi, a retired conservator at the museum. “Nobody could go there.”
Fortunately, the museum staff had been preparing for such a day. In the early 1980s, as security deteriorated in the countryside, the Afghan government transferred objects from the provincial museums to the capital. Around 150 crates packed with marbles and other artifacts came from the Rawza Museum and were stored in the basement.
Then, in 1988, as the Soviets prepared to depart and it became clear that Kabul could fall to the mujahedeen, the museum staff hid some of the most important objects in government facilities closer to the center of town. The Bactrian Hoard, a collection of 2,000-year-old jewelry and weapons, was stashed in the depths of the presidential palace. The museum’s staff kept its secret for the next decade, successfully safeguarding the finest treasures. But there wasn’t enough space to move the remainder of the museum’s collection, including the Islamic wing.
One morning, Saifi and the others woke to a pillar of smoke rising in the distance. Fighting had broken out between two rival groups, and the museum was hit by rocket fire. An inferno raged on the top floor; in the galleries, metal and wood were reduced to heat, light and ash; stone cracked and shattered.
Not everything was destroyed in the blaze. Afterward, fighters in the area began stealing from the museum. “They went for the low-hanging fruit,” said Jolyon Leslie, who was working for the United Nations in Kabul. The museum’s coin collection, the remains of the Islamic gallery, and its remarkable Begram Ivories, delicate and portable, were all taken. At first, it was opportunistic: ragged, hungry men stumbling off with what they could carry. Leslie recalled driving past street sellers flogging items fresh from the museum, displayed among vegetables on a sheet of newspaper in the mud. “My God, that’s a Buddha, that isn’t an onion,” he realized. He’d stop and pay the equivalent of a few dollars, and take them for safekeeping.
But as time went on, the looting became more organized. Leslie was part of a group that tried to preserve what it could at the museum by welding iron bars onto the windows. The thieves came back with crowbars. One night, two massive schist reliefs in the entrance hall, which had seemed too heavy to remove, disappeared, presumably by truck. “There were anecdotal reports that the mujahedeen were in cahoots with Pakistani dealers,” Leslie said. Certainly, many of the museum’s looted artifacts turned up for sale across the border in Peshawar.
During the war, almost 100 Ghazni marbles, including the Hamburg panel, disappeared from the government’s possession. “The pieces that were missing were the big, complete pieces,” Rugiadi told me. Though we cannot be certain, it seems probable that the Hamburg marble ended up on the black market in Pakistan, which was awash with Afghan antiquities. During the ’90s, commanders and other wartime entrepreneurs invested in heavy machinery and labor to systematically excavate the richest sites. “That’s when you have the looting of sites across the whole country,” Simpson, the curator at the British Museum, said.
As tragic as the looting of the museum was, such illicit excavations were worse in an important sense, because they destroyed the archaeological record. At least we know something about the original site of the Ghazni marbles. But each illegal dig meant that information about the past was lost forever. Shorn of their connection to their sites of discovery, a rich stream of antiquities crossed Afghanistan’s borders, destined for world markets, many via the Persian Gulf, where the mujahedeen had well-established connections with wealthy patrons of the jihad.
According to the Italian database, the al-Sabah Collection in Kuwait holds four of the Ghazni panels taken from the Afghan government collection; others have ended up at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization and the Islamic Art Museum Malaysia. The Sharjah Museum did not respond to a request for comment. Eric Delpont, director of the Paris museum, said that its panel was acquired from Hotel Drouot in 2003, and that the museum was unaware that it came from the Afghan government collection, believing it to be from “a mausoleum in the Ghaznavid capital.” Salam Kaoukji, the collection manager at al-Sabah, said that she was aware of their panels’ provenance but that she didn’t know if there were plans for restitution, adding that it was up to the governments of Kuwait and Afghanistan to decide.
Rekha Verma, the Malaysia museum’s head of collections, said it acquired its panel from an “established dealer” in Britain. After I presented her with evidence the panel was stolen, she expressed dismay and said the museum had removed the marble from view, and subsequently handed it over to the Afghan Embassy. “We take it seriously when it comes to looted pieces from any part of the world,” she wrote. “We will return this panel without any hesitation to its rightful owner.”
The Ghazni marbles are not the only artifacts from the Afghan government collection that have turned up abroad; Buddhist items from Afghanistan are also highly sought after. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, there is a room dedicated to the art of Gandhara, the ancient region that straddled present-day Afghanistan and Pakistan. One bust is particularly striking, characteristic of Gandhara’s unique blend of Classical and Buddhist influences: a terra-cotta Buddha depicted as a Grecian-looking youth, his hair a mass of finely worked curls. Most unusual, his eyes are made of garnet stones; an amber light shifts in their depths. “Afghanistan, probably Hadda,” reads the inscription. On the Met’s website, you can find a little more information on its provenance: The statue was purchased by the museum in 1986, from the London dealer Spink & Son. (The auction house, which has since changed ownership and no longer deals in ancient art, said it had no records of the object, but no reason to believe that the previous owners hadn’t complied with the law.)
Six years after the Met’s purchase, Chaibai Mustamandy, the former head of the Afghan Institute of Archaeology, who had come to America as a refugee, recognized the statue. His team excavated it a decade earlier from the archaeological site at Hadda, in eastern Afghanistan. Soon afterward, the depot where it was stored was looted by the mujahedeen. Mustamandy informed the Met that the bust was stolen; he died in a car accident in California the following year. According to Lyndel Prott, a former UNESCO official involved with the case, “there was no doubt” the item belonged to the Afghan government. The Met confirmed it had been in touch with Mustamandy, and said it “assured UNESCO that the object is safe at the Museum.”
Historically, collectors and museums in the West were rarely concerned with — or challenged over — the provenance of antiquities, as long as they were legally bought and sold in their own destination countries. In other words, finders keepers. That began to change after 1970, when a UNESCO treaty against antiquities trafficking made buyers responsible for checking that artifacts were legally exported from their countries of origin. The United States ratified the treaty in 1983, but it took Britain until 2002, and Germany until 2007. Norms and national laws changed slowly, spurred by high-profile court cases, like that of the Italian dealer Giacomo Medici, who was accused in 1997 of running a ring of tomb raiders and convicted in 2004.
“In a world that is well on its way to becoming one vast quarry,” Susan Sontag wrote in her essay “Melancholy Objects,” “the collector becomes someone engaged in a pious work of salvage.” London is a hub for the antiquities trade, and there I visited John Eskenazi, a prominent dealer specializing in South Asian art, to ask how Afghanistan’s artifacts were handled after war broke out there. “I think the conflict was always very far away,” he told me, as we sat in his studio near Regent’s Park; an enormous, 2,000-year-old terra-cotta orb loomed over us, depicting village scenes from Chandraketugarh in present-day Bengal. Eskenazi — whose father was a Ladino-speaker from Istanbul — began his practice in the 1970s; during the war years, he told me, Afghan artifacts were commonly sold in London. He recalled visiting Spink in London, where the Met acquired the garnet-eyed Buddha. “It was a train station, with Indians and Pakistanis and everybody bringing in objects,” he said. “Of course everything was illegal, but there were no laws in the U.K.”
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Eskenazi told me that he abhorred the behavior of dealers like Medici, and that he had always done due diligence to ensure that the antiquities that he sold were not stolen. But he also felt that once objects were on the art market, they should be preserved by collectors and museums. “Let’s face it, art belongs to whoever can take care of it, and for now, it’s the West,” he said. “The world is a dance of Shiva, it’s all about destruction and re-creation, continuously. So what we’re doing here is we’re trying to pick up what’s left, the relics of the past, and make some order.”
Eskinazi brought up the influential 2008 book “Who Owns Antiquity?” by James Cuno, the president of the Getty Trust, which defends the traditional idea of the encyclopedic museum, “the museum dedicated to ideas, not ideologies, the museum of international, indeed universal aspirations, and not of nationalist limitations, curious and respectful of the world’s artistic and cultural legacy as common to us all.” Today the encyclopedic museum happens to be in New York or London; in the future it may appear in new concentrations of capital like Doha or Shanghai. “Although it is true that encyclopedic museums are primarily in the West,” Cuno asks, “does that discredit the principle of their existence?”
The encyclopedic museum, it seemed to me, was a place where the cosmopolitan could contemplate history in a kind of innocence. The past is gone — why should it haunt the present? In Cuno’s view, the British have as much of a claim to the legacy of classical Athens as the Greeks; as for modern and ancient Egyptians, “all that can be said is that they occupy the same (actually less) stretch of the earth’s geography.” Eskenazi expressed a similar sentiment about Buddhist art: “You tell me what Afghanistan has to do with Gandhara — I mean, modern-day Afghanistan.”
When I recounted the story of the Hamburg marble to Eskenazi, he said he had been appalled by the destruction of the Kabul museum in 1993, and alarmed to find its artifacts for sale on the antiquities market. In the 1990s, while on a trip to Peshawar, Eskenazi was offered some of the stolen Begram Ivories, wrapped in pink toilet paper. He contacted UNESCO, who told him they couldn’t buy hot materials. Finally, he decided to risk purchasing them himself. He also bought a Buddha statue from a collector in Japan that had been looted from the museum. In 2011, with the assistance of the British Museum, he donated them, anonymously, to the Afghan government. (I’d heard through the grapevine that Eskinazi was the benefactor, which he confirmed.)
Eskenazi served us more oolong tea from a black cast-iron pot and fixed me with a wry smile. He half-expected me to write a sensationalized story about looting, he told me, proclaiming the “pseudomorals” of a new generation that sought to purify itself by disavowing the old. The art world had indeed changed since his youth. But he felt he had done his small part to preserve the spark of the divine that was carried by great art.
“I feel like a criminal because of what I have, or had, done,” he said. “While on the other side, I feel I’ve helped humanity conserve its own history and culture. I feel like that much more, of course.”
For the marbles that were taken from the countryside, the lack of an identifiable former owner makes the question of restitution more difficult. But the Hamburg panel had both a clear legal case for its restitution and someone to return it to — a “classic theft,” as Reuther, the MKG’s provenance researcher, termed it. In October 2019, at a brief ceremony in Hamburg, the museum returned the Ghazni panel to the Afghan Embassy. Between the Afghan and German governments, it had taken more than a year to arrange the paperwork. “There was a feeling of relief that this piece was finally repatriated,” Mörike, the curator, told me. He hoped that other museums with similarly stolen objects would consider returning them. “What the Ghazni case shows is that recent acquisitions are as problematic as historical acquisitions,” he said. He questioned why museums needed to acquire new antiquities from the art market at all. “The storehouses of the museums are full. We’re already in possession of millions of objects.”
This view, once heretical, has been gathering currency in mainstream institutions, prompted in part by repeated scandals in the antiquities market, as well as more aggressive law enforcement over fears that trafficking funds organized crime and even terrorist groups in places like Syria and Iraq. At the end of 2019, after an extended internal debate, the Metropolitan allowed individual departments to cease pursuing antiquities, what it termed a “recognition of a change in practice.” The Ancient Near East department was the first to do so. “Now that things have gotten as bad as they’ve gotten in the Middle East, we haven’t purchased a thing, we haven’t gotten any gifts,” Kim Benzel, who became the department’s head curator in 2016, told me. “It’s the right thing to do.”
In the near future, the Hamburg marble will complete its circular journey by jet aircraft, returning to the National Museum in Kabul. But will it be safe there? The specter of past destruction hangs over Afghanistan’s future. During my trip to Kabul, I walked around the museum with Saifi, the conservator, and he pointed out where the smoke marks had been painted over, the discoloration still visible. The fire left the museum roofless, its windows gaping holes. “You can see up top, right there, how the museum burned,” he said. “From the outside, it was just a ruin.” By the end of the civil war, much of Kabul looked the same way. Saifi spoke with pride of his country’s ancient history, and the work the museum had done to preserve it. After 2001, the museum was rebuilt with international assistance. Today it receives around 25,000 visitors each year, nearly all of them Afghans.
By risking their lives, the museum’s staff members had managed to preserve many of the most important items from its collection, like the Bactrian Hoard, now touring as an exhibition abroad, and they were actively seeking the return of more stolen objects like the Hamburg marble. “Restitution is important to us,” Fahim Rahimi, the museum’s current director, told me. He alluded delicately to the involvement of some of his country’s power brokers in looting. “We have to struggle against a very difficult situation.” The museum continues to depend on international funding and support — a drop in the bucket, it must be said, compared with the amount foreign countries have spent on arms and ammunition here.
Entering the museum’s lobby, Saifi and I passed the limestone statue of Kanishka, a second-century Buddhist emperor, which had been smashed by the Taliban and later restored, shard by shard. A case on the ground floor held items confiscated from smugglers at Afghanistan’s borders, and there was a roomful of looted antiquities returned by the Japanese government, including a famous relief of the Kashyapa Brothers’ adoration of the Buddha. Until recently, there was a gallery nicknamed the Heathrow Room, filled with objects seized in Britain. Hundreds of important objects had been returned to the Kabul museum; hundreds more were still at large. Rahim told me they were establishing a cultural-protection office that would pursue restitution claims abroad. The museum’s archives had burned, making it difficult to know exactly how many objects were missing, but a project to catalog its holdings, assisted by the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute, was nearly complete. “You have to bear in mind what happened to this museum,” Alejandro Gallego, the project’s field director, told me. “That the museum is still standing, and that it still has its objects and artifacts — it’s the epitome of resilience.”
When Gallego showed visitors around the museum, he would shuttle back and forth among the various donor rooms, trying to link the objects into the familiar story line from Stone Age to Medieval Age. But amid the reconstructed, preserved and restituted artifacts, an alternate narrative would emerge: of cycles of human endeavor in the face of repeated destruction, with the scars of the building and the people themselves as the exhibits. “There’s the story that the museum tells,” he said. “But sometimes the story that the museum doesn’t tell is more interesting.” To conclude the story of the Hamburg marble, I wanted to go to the spot where the Italians dug it up. Even though the palace site had been destroyed by decades of looting, war and urban encroachment, I thought I could imagine things as they once were, when Rajabi was a young man with a shovel, and the country was still at peace; perhaps I’d see visions of sultans and poets. But though Ghazni was only a few hours from Kabul, driving there meant risking your life: The insurgents kidnapped people from the highway and fought gun battles with the government. A temporary exhibition that included Ghazni marbles, staged at the governor’s compound there, came to grief when the office was attacked by a suicide bomber in 2014, shattering some of the panels — a cautionary tale against linking art to counterinsurgency. So I couldn’t go back to the beginning.
Instead, at the end of my trip to Kabul in June 2019 I went with a photographer and our drivers to a new archaeological dig, at a relatively safe site two hours north of the city. In a narrow valley in Parwan Province, up a series of gravel switchbacks, we arrived at a bullet-shaped stupa, an ancient Buddhist shrine. The north side of its base was boxed in with scaffolding; as I approached, I could see the laborers toiling to restore the monument, carting sand in barrows and hoisting buckets with rope and pulley.
I was met by Azizudin Wafa, from the Afghan Institute of Archaeology, who was overseeing the excavations. Thirty-eight, with a degree in archaeology from Kabul University, Wafa was shaggy and fervent, dressed in a sweaty collared shirt and khakis with cargo pockets. He pumped my hand excitedly. “I’m so glad you came,” he said. “I want the world to know about this.”
The structure loomed overhead: It was more than 100 feet high and about 70 feet in diameter. “It’s the largest stupa we’ve found,” said Wafa. “When we started, the base wasn’t visible. It was a happy surprise.”
In 2016, the stupa was a crumbling stub poking up amid a mound of detritus, its elaborate patterns of arches nearly worn away. The Afghan Cultural Heritage Consulting Organization, in partnership with the Afghan government and with funding from the U.S. State Department, has since begun a restoration project. When they excavated the mound, they found a buried, square pediment with staircases on its east and west side. Now the archaeologists were excavating a site just up the hill, which seemed to be the attached monastery; construction on the stupa likely began around the year 400. Workers with scarves tied around their heads were excavating four-meter grids with hand trowels, one 10-centimeter layer at a time. The project was a valuable source of income for the locals. “All the workers are from the area, that’s our system,” Wafa said.
Below us, the steep valley was terraced with fields, and dotted with apricot, mulberry and pomegranate trees. One terrace up, there was a farmer, stooped with age, cutting hay beside three cows tethered amid purple flowers. He said his name was Baba Aziz. “I don’t know anything about it, and neither did my grandfather,” he said, waving his scythe at the stupa. “Maybe his grandfather did.”
Nearby were holes where, he said, some armed men had come during the civil war and burrowed, looking for antiquities. “The smugglers are as skilled as we are,” Wafa interjected. “The difference is that they destroy, and we protect.”
All the restoration work on the stupa was being done according to surviving examples on the building’s symmetrical exterior. In some places — a badly eroded band all the way around the base, or whatever spire had sat atop the round cap — the design had been lost forever. But in a stroke of luck, the western staircase was completed much later — perhaps two centuries after — when, Wafa believed, the monument began to sag on that side. As a result, the intricate decorative work of the pediment, made with stacked slabs of schist, had been covered up and preserved, allowing them to faithfully restore the rest of the monument. It was astonishing, Wafa said, to apprehend the thoughts of people who stood here more than 15 centuries earlier. “I feel like they’re speaking to me. Others can’t hear them, but I can.”
Looking down toward the main valley, we could see two helicopters flying toward the immense American base at Bagram, low above the mud-walled villages, across a tableau in motion in different scales: The harvest ripening, the foreigners with their looming deadlines, the locals struggling for the next generation, the plant species evolving with the climate, the mountains eroding, the sun burning itself out in the sky.
The story of the marbles, I realized, had no end; the return of the Hamburg panel meant a new chapter was beginning, one that would be written by Afghans themselves.
Wafa spoke of how the hills here had been filled with stupas and monasteries, with the royal city on the plains below, where Kanishka had his summer capital filled with splendors.
“They accomplished great things with very limited means — it can inspire us to do the same,” he said, and smiled. “These people were Afghans, too.”
Matthieu Aikins is a winner of the George Polk Award and a contributing writer for the magazine. His first book, about a journey from Afghanistan to Europe with refugees, will be published by Harper next year. This article first appeared in The New York Times weblog.

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