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British Museum - rare bowl returned to Afghanistan

Afghan Bowl

A VERY fine Safavid tinned copper bowl which had been looted from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul was presented to the Embassy of Afghanistan in London for return to Kabul.

The bowl, dating to the early 17th century, was lost during the civil war in Afghanistan in the 1990s. It was bought in good faith in December 1994 from an Afghan antique dealer in Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) by Patrick and Paola von Aulock who owned it for twenty years before deciding to sell it when they contacted Christie’s for a valuation.

The bowl was identified by Sara Plumbly, Specialist and Head of Christie’s Islamic Art department as being a piece from the museum in Kabul. The bowl had been published in 1974 by Souren Melikian-Chirvani and was included in his catalogue of Islamic Metalwork from the Iranian World (Melikian-Chrivani 1982).

Christie’s gave permission for the bowl to be examined by the British Museum. The Museum confirmed the provenance and negotiations were entered into with the current owners and with the National Museum of Afghanistan to return the bowl to Kabul.

This return is all the more significant as much of the Islamic metalware collection of the National Museum of Afghanistan was lost during a devastating fire following a rocket strike on the museum in November 1995. The National Museum of Afghanistan has confirmed the bowl will be put back on public display as soon as possible on its return.

The bowl dates to the Safavid period (1501–1722), and includes a cartouche which mentions the owner’s name and date: ‘Owned by Mohammad Abū Tāleb 1013 [30 May 1604–18 May 1605]’. Three medallions depict scenes from the famous Persian tragic romance Khosrow and Shirin by the Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209) and the piece is sufficiently similar to another in the Musée de l’Homme in Paris that the two may come from the same workshop which was probably in the city of Herat.

It appears the bowl had been very carefully mutilated in the past by engraving deep lines through each of the faces: this may have been at a moment when the Safavid dynasty was dethroned by the Afghan invasion in 1722 (Melikian-Chirvani 1982: 277). This defacement was not restricted to the human figures but also extended to the animals and was executed so carefully that it amounted to a subtle transformation of design rather than simple iconoclasm.

This bowl was scientifically analysed at the British Museum with the permission of the owners and the National Museum of Afghanistan.

It shows that the bowl was manufactured by casting, with some additional working and use of a lathe for finishing. Analysis using surface X-ray fluorescence spectrometry confirmed that the bowl is largely of copper and the white metal plating is tinning. The decoration was engraved and was finely executed. A black material has been applied to the engraved design, which although it could not be firmly identified, is likely to be related to the organic black inlays seen on many brass bowls.

Sara Plumbly, Head of the Islamic Department at Christie’s in London, said: “Christie’s are delighted to have played a role in facilitating the return of this work to the Kabul museum and we would like to extend our thanks to the previous owners Mr. and Mrs von Aulock for their collaboration. This is a good example of where research, cooperation and a wish to facilitate the right solution has succeeded. Christie’s maintains its on-going commitment in this area and takes matters of cultural property very seriously”.

St John Simpson, Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Middle East, British Museum said: “This is another important step in the rebuilding of the National Museum of Afghanistan and we are delighted to have played a small part in the return of this important object to Kabul”.

His Excellency Ahmad Zia Siamak, Chargé d’ Affaires at the Embassy of Afghanistan said: “On behalf of the people of Afghanistan, the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in London would like to express its gratitude to the British Museum, Christie’s and the owners for their role in returning a historic artefact to the National Museum of Afghanistan.

“During the civil war, the National Museum of Afghanistan was looted and destroyed, and during the last few years, the government of Afghanistan has attempted to revive the museum. The return of this piece, which used to be displayed in a showcase of the National Museum of Afghanistan for many years, has a high historic and intellectual value for the people of Afghanistan. Its forthcoming display in the National Museum will not only please our people, but is a valuable step in the restoration of the museum.

“We thank the British Museum once again for facilitating the return of this important object and for its invaluable assistance to the National Museum of Afghanistan”.

Fahim Rahimi, Director of the National Museum of Afghanistan said: “I hope returning this bowl will be a start for more artefacts to be recovered, not only those looted from museums as well those looted from archaeological sites in Afghanistan. I ask those collectors who keep artefacts from Afghanistan to help us return it back and encourage the auction houses to always check their collections for looted objects from Afghanistan”.

The British Museum has a long-standing, close-collaboration with the National Museum of Afghanistan. It has acted as an independent centre of expertise on the probable origin of trafficked antiquities and has advised government authorities and other parties in connection with stolen antiquities. The British Museum was involved in the cataloguing and subsequent return to Afghanistan of large quantities of objects seized by the UK Border Force in 2009 and again in 2012.

During the preparations for the exhibition Afghanistan: crossroads of the ancient world the British Museum helped to identify a group of 20 ‘Begram ivories’. These are ivory and bone overlays originally set into items of wooden furniture found at the ancient site of Begram and again dispersed following looting of the National Museum in Kabul during the 1990s.

With the generous support of a private donor, these objects were physically transferred to the British Museum in late 2010 where they underwent an intensive programme of conservation and scientific analysis. They were displayed in the subsequent exhibition in 2011 (with the approval of the Afghan authorities) and then returned to the National Museum of Afghanistan in July 2012.

Also returned in 2012 was the important figure of a ‘Fire Buddha’ which was found at Sarai Khuja in 1965. This magnificent Gandharan sculpture had been stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan in 1996 and entered a private collection. Thanks again to the generosity of a private individual, this was acquired on behalf of Kabul and displayed for a short period in the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum prior to its return.

The British Museum continues to liaise with the UK Border Force, the Art and Antiques Unit at Scotland Yard and our colleagues in Afghanistan to try to combat the illicit trade in antiquities from the region.