Looters of Afghan art: Suddenly respectable
Seen as defence against destruction of ancient treasures
The Toronto Star Newspapers
Martin Regg Cohn
PESHAWAR, Pakistan - In the scented alleys of this fabled bazaar, they profit shamelessly from looting and smuggling.
Service comes with a smile and steaming cups of sweet tea, though the truth is usually in short supply.
Now, the fast-talking antique dealers of this frontier town are suddenly looking respectable.
Long demonized as parasites for plundering the cultural heritage of neighbouring Afghanistan, it turns out they may have been doing the right thing all along.
Ever since puritanical Taleban rulers in Kabul began smashing ancient artefacts last month, these smugglers and merchants have become the last line of defence against the extinction of a country's archeological legacy. Indeed, dealers are working overtime to make the most of Afghanistan's lost heritage, before the trail gets cold across the Khyber Pass.
As always, pathos is part of the sales pitch.
``My heart broke when I heard they were destroying the Buddhas,'' says Hasam ud Din, curled up barefoot over a rug in his shop. Gesturing to a shelf crammed with sculptures, he intones gravely: ``These artefacts must be saved.''
An assistant closes the shop door and carefully turns the lock, then draws the drapes snugly behind him to block out the prying eyes of the police.
The special collection is unveiled: Intricately carved terra cotta Buddha heads, full bronze figures, exquisitely carved ivory, and stone friezes dating back centuries, according to the bearded shopkeeper.
All for a price, starting in the thousands of dollars.
A decree by the Taleban's mullahs, implemented despite a chorus of protests from foreign religious scholars, led to the destruction of the massive standing Buddha sculptures of Bamiyan and countless other pre-Islamic statues.
There is talk that truckloads of rubble from the giant Bamiyan Buddhas are being ferried across the border for final shipment to free-spending Buddhist collectors in Tokyo. There are reports that 300 newly arrived pieces are stashed away in Quetta, another Pakistani border town to the south.
Many dealers are making most of it up, rather than digging it up. They tell customers what they want to hear about supposedly rare pieces that are, in fact, commonplace fakes.
In the bazaar's cloistered world of subterfuge and hyperbole, of whispered deals and hollow boasts, no one knows the true state of the market.
The only certainty is that a wave of publicity has stoked demand amongst foreign buyers who believe this to be their last chance to stock up on Afghanistan's treasures.
``It looks as if a lot of people are capitalizing on the crisis now,'' says Brigitte Neuvacher, of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage.
She believes most of what's on the market is fake.
But for the serious smugglers who traffic in authentic contraband - people whom she once considered her nemesis - Neuvacher has grudging praise.
``We have made a 180-degree turn in policy,'' she says of her group, which previously lobbied to keep all artefacts within Afghanistan's borders.
``If the statues would be destroyed in Afghanistan, maybe it's better that they all get taken out and hopefully be bought by museums.''
Many buyers are well-placed collectors here in Pakistan, former generals and politicians whose homes are lavishly decorated with ancient artefacts.
Naseerullah Babar, a retired Pakistani general, has admitted paying $150,000 for an ivory piece from the plundered Kabul Museum.
In fact, the museum's renowned collection remained essentially intact after the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
The Communist occupiers may have brutalized the population, but they safeguarded the country's antiquities.
All that changed after the Soviet withdrawal plunged the country into civil war in the early 1990s.
Rival warlords vied for control of Kabul and systematically looted the museum, often at the direction of outside experts, says art historian Nancy Hatch Dupree.
Dupree wrote the official illustrated catalogue to the museum in 1974, at a time when Afghanistan was at peace. The museum housed a remarkable collection, thanks to the country's geo-political perch at the crossroads of invasion routes into India over the centuries, and the country's key role in the spread of Buddhism across East Asia.
When civil war broke out, foreign dealers used her detailed catalogue as a roadmap, instructing looters on precisely how to plunder the collection of thousands of priceless Greco-Buddhist sculptures.
Sitting in her office in Peshawar, Dupree still rues her unwitting role in the scattering of Afghanistan's heritage.
But after berating buyers and unscrupulous dealers for most of her career, Dupree now consoles herself with the thought that it may be for the best.
``Buy, buy, buy,'' she says, hunched over her faded catalogue, thumbing through the glossy photographs of lost artefacts. ``Keep them for your children and heirs, and then eventually, send them back to Afghanistan.''
A sophisticated mafia keeps much of its loot hidden in nearby tribal areas that are beyond the reach of Pakistani police.
``The underground stolen art network here is very well organized, as organized as the drug network and just as dangerous,'' she says. ``They have contacts all over the world, and they're very professional.''
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