Gandharan statues depicting the enlightened form of the Buddha will soon return to the place they have belonged to for nearly two millennia—Pakistan. But the route these antiques have taken before returning to their home is fascinating to say the least—a Department of Homeland Security investigation; an Indian-American art dealer; and a conspiracy and theft that went on for over three decades before it was cracked thousands of miles away from Pakistan, in the US. For long, the statues had an audience of ‘art agents’ in a New York storage unit.
The US has returned 192 stolen antiquities valued at nearly $3.4 million to Pakistan after an investigation into an Indian-American art dealer Subhash Kapoor, the Manhattan District Attorney’s (MDA) office in New York announced recently.
Kapoor, one of the world’s most notorious antiques traffickers and eight other people have been indicted for conspiring and trafficking stolen rare artefacts. The Gandharan statues were stored in a storage unit rented by agents of ‘Art of the Past’ — Kapoor’s art gallery in New York—before the Antiquities Trafficking Unit’s seizure in 2022 earlier this year.
Between 2011 to 2022, the District Attorney’s Office and Homeland Security Investigations New York recovered more than 2,500 items trafficked by Kapoor and his network. The total value of the items recovered exceeds $143 million.
The antiques were returned during a repatriation ceremony at the Pakistan Consulate that was attended by Ayesha Ali, Consul General of Pakistan in New York, and US Homeland Security Investigations Assistant Special Agent-in-Charge Thomas Acocella.
Thanking the investigating agencies, Ali stated, “We began this journey with the DA’s Office and DHS in November 2020, 45 pieces of stolen Gandhara artifacts were returned and today we are very fortunate that another batch of 192 antiquities valued at $3.4 million are being returned. Some of them are on display here. Thank you so much for your work and your efforts.”
The Gandharan statues were stolen from Pakistan and smuggled into New York County during the 1990s. Traffickers Zahid Parvez and Zeeshan Butt utilised their family businesses located across the word — Islamabad, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Dubai — to supply the international art market with stolen antiques from countries including, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
Another ancient artifact recovered was the Mehrgarh Dolls, dated ca. 3500-2600 B.C.E., which were stolen from a Neolithic archaeological site in Pakistan and smuggled into New York County. Among the earliest human-crafted figurines in the world, these terracotta artifacts are believed to represent mother goddesses or a cultic figure for worship.
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Pakistan’s artifacts under threat
According to a 2019 report in Dawn, Pakistan is vulnerable to losing its rare artifacts because the government has no record of the stolen or smuggled items that have found their way out of the country. The country, richly abound with archeological sites dating back to 8,000 years, has become prone to illegal trafficking and smuggling of artifacts.
“Pakistan has already lost an uncountable chunk of its repository of ancient artifacts in recent decades through a systematic process of theft and smuggling,” Yar Jan Badini, a Quetta-based archaeology researcher said.
Home to the 8,000-year-old Mehrgarh civilisation and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, both rich with archeological sites sacred to Sikhs and Buddhists, Pakistan has been a major target of illegal trade of antiques.
The Dawn report highlighted key reasons for this illegal trade — from organised smuggling rackets, lack of awareness on the part of the government, to lack of records and tribal feuds. Badini told Anadolu Agency, the Turkish news syndicate, that smugglers associated with international art markets had also hired local agents who would buy precious antiquities accidentally found by local residents at throw-away prices. Also, illiteracy and lack of awareness among locals allows chieftains to conduct fake surveys or excavations in exchange for money.
The Federal government had transferred the archaeology-related affairs to provinces in 2014, following a constitutional amendment. However, no records on theft and trafficking of artefacts were available with the regional governments, according to the Dawn report. “As such we do not have exact figures of the stolen artifacts from the province,” Zafar Buledi, secretary of Balochistan’s Culture and Archeology Department told Anadolu Agency.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)