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How Christie’s helped to return a looted treasure to Afghanistan

The story of how a routine valuation of a Safavid bowl at Christie’s led to a historic handover in London

On Monday, 10 May 2016, a fine Safavid tinned copper bowl (1501–1722), which had been looted from the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul, was presented to the Embassy of Afghanistan in London for return to the country.

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 from an Afghan antique dealer in Saudi Arabia by a German couple, Patrick and Paola von Aulock. They subsequently decided to sell the bowl and 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.

‘When we were doing the research for the pieces in the sale,’ explained Plumbly, ‘I found it published in one of the books particularly related to this type of material, Islamic Metalwork from the Iranian World. 8th-18th Centuries, by a scholar called Assadullah Souren Melikian-Chirvani. The book was published in 1982 and described the bowl as being in the collection of the Kabul Museum.’

Safavid period (1501-1722) tinned copper bowl, early 17th century, probably Herat, Afghanistan © The Trustees of the British Museum
Safavid period (1501-1722) tinned copper bowl, early 17th century, probably Herat, Afghanistan © The Trustees of the British Museum

‘My first reaction was of course that this must have been a closely related bowl. Although ‘our’ example was of particularly high quality, it is a type of bowl that we do encounter relatively regularly. However, a closer look at the detail confirmed they were one and the same — not only was the overall decorative scheme identical, but even the smallest of decorative details and imperfections matched. It was also key that both ‘our’ bowl, and that published by Melikian, had a dated ownership inscription stating that the bowl was owned by a Mohammad Abu Taleb in AH 1013 (1604-05 AD). There could be no doubt that we were looking at the Kabul bowl.’

After explaining this news to the owner, Plumbly’s first point of contact was St John Simpson, Assistant Keeper of the Middle East Department at the British Museum. Simpson has been involved in the return of several pieces to the National Museum in Kabul, including in 2012 a group of 20 ‘Begram ivories’, which were also dispersed following the looting of the museum in the 1990s.

The National Museum of Afghanistan in 2005  Insights UIG  Bridgeman Images
The National Museum of Afghanistan in 2005 / Insights/ UIG / Bridgeman Images

Simpson put Plumbly in touch with Fahim Rahimi, the Director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, who was able to confirm that the piece had been in their collection. What ensued was a careful negotiation between Christie’s, the owners and the British Museum.

‘The owners were understandably reluctant at first,’ said Plumbly. ‘They had brought us a work for sale and ended up with neither the piece nor the anticipated proceeds. Throughout the rest of the process, however, they were amazingly understanding and cooperative.’

With the permission of the owners and the National Museum of Afghanistan, Christie’s sent the bowl to be scientifically analysed at the British Museum. The analysis showed that it was manufactured by casting, with some additional working and use of a lathe for finishing.

A museum official stands by the remains of ancient statues as he checks the basement of Afghanistans national museum in Kabul, December 1, 2001. Two millennia old, the statues were hacked to pieces by the Talibans religious police. Photo REUTERSDamir Sagolj

A museum official stands by the remains of ancient statues as he checks the basement of Afghanistan's national museum in Kabul, December 1, 2001. Two millennia old, the statues were hacked to pieces by the Taliban's religious police. Photo: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

The return of the bowl 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. This is the first piece of Islamic Art to be returned, and the museum has confirmed the bowl will be put back on public display as soon as possible on its return.

‘Christie’s is delighted to have played a role in facilitating the return of this work to the Kabul museum,’ said Plumbly, who attended the official handing over of the bowl. ‘We would like to extend our thanks to 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,’ added the specialist. ‘Christie’s maintains its ongoing commitment in this area and takes matters of cultural property very seriously.’

Left to right Jonathan Williams, Deputy Director British Museum; Tony Doubleday, Head of Legal Services at British Museum; Sara Plumbly, Head of Christie’s Islamic Art department; Paola von Aulock; Yasir Qanooni, Cultural Attaché, Embassy of Afghanistan; Ahmad Zia Siamak, Chargé d’Affaires, Embassy of Afghanistan. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Left to right: Jonathan Williams, Deputy Director British Museum; Tony Doubleday, Head of Legal Services at British Museum; Sara Plumbly, Head of Christie’s Islamic Art department; Paola von Aulock; Yasir Qanooni, Cultural Attaché, Embassy of Afghanistan; Ahmad Zia Siamak, Chargé d’Affaires, Embassy of Afghanistan. © The Trustees of the British Museum

At the handing-over ceremony, His Excellency Ahmad Zia Siamak, Chargé d’Affaires at the Embassy of Afghanistan, thanked the British Museum, Christie’s and the owners on behalf of the Afghan people ‘for their role in returning a historic artefact to the National Museum of Afghanistan’.

He went on to explain how the government of Afghanistan has been trying to revive the museum in recent years. ‘The return of this piece, which used to be displayed in a showcase 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.’

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and former President Hamid Karzai personally carried the piece back to Afghanistan on their return from their recent trip to Britain.