Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Pakistani Smuggling Attempt Thwarted...

A new article from the Daily Times (a national newspaper out of Pakistan), brought to my attention via the Museum Security listserv, reports on a significant confiscation of artifacts bound for export, but stopped at the Allama Iqbal airport, Lahore. The Federal Archaeology Department recovered a shipment of 272 ceramics and pieces of Gandharan statuary (although the presence of the latter is not clear from the article) originating from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan regions, including the Kuli site complex, but that some of the smaller ceramic objects might even have been unearthed on personal property, during home or yard maintenance for example.

Noting that artifacts such as these will often end up in the hand of collectors all over the world, the confiscating official lamented "ancient sites are plundered for short-term gains, this results in both the loss of heritage to indigenous people and irreparable damage to archaeological sites." Very savvy words indeed! Cultural heritage law in Pakistan dictates that if an object is verified authentic, but less than 75 years old, it is returned to its owner. In this instance, apparently the smuggling attempt wasn't well-disguised, and an on-the-spot determination of the general antiquity of the artifacts could be made, warranting their being turned over to the FAD. The stark cut-off point of 75 years applies even to small, more 'personal' items, as the ex-wife of famous Pakistani cricketer and politician Imran Khan found out 15 years ago, when she attempted to take a few tiles from the couple's house out of the country, but was arrested and tried for antiquities smuggling instead, the customs official reported.

The international and Pakistani archaeological communities are fortunate that, this time, the relevant authorities were on the ball, and this confiscation could be made. However, we in the illicit trade monitoring world know that for every one apprehension, many more get through. Thus, the burden of proof remains firmly on the shoulders of international galleries, such as Gandhara Galleries, to demonstrate that the 'priceless' objects they are selling for a fraction of their true, immeasurable, worth (while still reaping absorbitant profits) are either replicas, or have valid pre-1970s export licenses and, ideally, completely in-tact paper trails from surfacing to export to sale. Since it's all too apparent that most recent artifacts smuggled from places such as Pakistan will lack this documentation, dealers and galleries can't provide it, and most don't care, confiscations like this will, at least occasionally, continue.

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