Looted art

Johnny Eskenazi on the cultural casualties of the Afghan war: An evening with Kalashnikovs and the Begram ivories

In 1996, the art dealer and scholar was taken secretly to the house of a Pakistani politician where he saw one of the greatest treasures from the Kabul Museum


As the civil war grew more violent between 1992 and 1995, Kabul was progressively destroyed. Warring factions sparred for the possession of a few streets. The area where the museum was sited on the edge of the city changed hands repeatedly. Each group ransacked and looted whatever it could—coins and fragments which could be sold across the border for a trifling sum.

In May 1993 a missile destroyed the museum’s roof and most of the first floor. Manuscripts burned, bronzes melted, falling masonry broke the glass display cases, pottery and plaster. The archives were turned to dust and the museum stood open to the elements, and to further looting, for almost a year until finally, in January 1994, the United Nations organised a new roof, the installation of armoured doors, and windows that could be permanently closed.

Thousands of objects, fragments and shards were retrieved from the masonry thanks to the loyalty and unselfishness of the curators and guards, and of a group of archaeologists who were mainly foreigners. But the Begram ivories and dozens of other masterpieces are still missing.

In the autumn of 1994 I was in Peshawar. Peshawar is a busy trading city on the borders of Pakistan and it was now much much larger than it had been 20 years earlier. In addition, the presence of millions of Afghan refugees in the area around Peshawar have made it the trading place for the whole of Northern Pakistan and the support base for the Afghan guerilla war. In these noisy streets you can buy or sell anything.

Seated uncomfortably on the usual threadbare felt rug, in the usual back room of the usual poverty-stricken hardware shop, surrounded by cups of tea, brass teapots and fabrics, plus the most disparate collection of objects, observed silently by the usual gang of sinister “shop boys”, I am trying to protect myself from Parveez’s onslaught.

Parveez is doing all that he can to sell me something. Irritated by my ability to avoid buying anything, he gets up slowly and reappears a short while later with a box of shoes from which he extracts a few twists of pink lavatory paper. He unrolls these gently and suddenly, he slowly produces, one after another, nine Begram ivories held together by strips of Sellotape.

I am staring at them, sweating. The last of these ivories represents a mythical animal; Parveez drops it and it splits in two. Controlling my rage, I ask him where they came from. The response is quite clear: “Kabul Museum”. I stand up and leave.

I return to London in a state of emotional upheaval, having (presumptuously) decided to devote my life to the recovery and preservation of the Begram ivories, for the benefit of mankind. The idea is to create an international fund and to acquire them all, restore them, publish them and create a travelling exhibition before taking them back to Kabul once peace is restored.

I knock at the door of the great American and English museums, and also at the Musée Guimet in Paris which possesses a few pieces of the original treasure. I contact the keenest collectors; the International Institute for Art Research (IFAR); I join a committee for the salvation of the Afghan heritage in Los Angeles. Finally I appeal to Unesco in Paris.

Nothing to be done. Everyone is enthusiastic and interested, but there is no public or private body willing to sponsor a clandestine market, enrich robbers and take part in an illegal operation. Don Quixote rules. Meanwhile I return to Peshawar at regular intervals for more than two years to search for all the others.

I spread a rumour that I have a client ready to buy the whole treasure, but in vain; I locate only 20 fragments, all small, and I see them again every time I come. No one wants them, not even the Japanese, who are not usually so scrupulous. They are too dangerous. Something is not working; the ivories cannot have disappeared, but they are nowhere to be found on the “regular” market. Everyone who ought to know must know by now that “the chicken is ready for the barbecue”.

In February 1996 one of my most loyal middle men telephones excitedly from Peshawar. The ivories are in the hands of a “very powerful Pakistani poleetishan”, who is willing to do business. I rush to Peshawar where, in the middle of the night I am picked up from my hotel and disguised as a mujaheddin “for security”. A wool turban tied round my head and I already have a beard—which is a help. Then I am transported at top speed across the sleeping city in a luxurious Landcruiser, with Amin the politician, sinister and silent, by my side. The driver and the guard are carrying Kalashnikovs. There is another jeep with more armed characters inside in front of us, “precaution, you know, too many bandits,” Amin explains. Listen to who is speaking.

Finally we arrive at the foot of one of the many cement walls just outside the city. A metal gate painted in the traditional Muslim green opens slowly and shuts again immediately; I find myself in the dried-up garden of a big villa made of cement with columns, steps, terraces, wrought iron etc. A Le Corbusier-style nightmare. Tiles everywhere, huge lamps of dusty crystal, light switches in gilded bronze, great showcases full of modern Chinese porcelain and thermos flasks decorated with red roses, hideous carpets felted with the dust from the road beyond the wall, divans in the renaissance style.

This is the house of rich people, the middle man confirms, friends of Amin. The friends are Afghans with sinister faces; they look the prototype of villains in a Turkish film about drug smuggling. Hospitable as ever, they offer me melon, pistachios, spicy nuts and grapes and they observe me as I nibble.

Then the ever-present “assistants” disappear and reappear with three large locally made samsonite suitcases. They open them and begin pulling out the ivories in their usual wrapping of pink lavatory paper, lining them up on a bed. I count 107.

Nearly all the masterpieces are there, apart from the famous casket lid; some others, the middle man assures me, are in the hands of other politicians. If I am interested these can be added, but these ones first. I look at them one by one. They are tired and they are beginning to crumble, these extraordinary vestiges of a more peaceful past.

The courtiers are beginning to fidget under the intermittent flicker of a defective strip light. I should like to be transformed into Rambo, and to machine-gun them down with tense lips as he does.

I’d like to rush off with the suitcases and jump just in time into a helicopter waiting for me in the garden, with a tousled beauty at the controls. Instead I sit silently, powerless and anxious, with my mouth burning from the spicy nuts. I look at the ivories over and over again, watched anxiously by Amin and Co.

I feel responsible for the history of the world, the art of the world. A sweet, cool slice of melon helps. I have to keep cool, I am here to make a straightforward business transaction. I ask the fateful question: “How much?” and Amin the politician replies “Ten million”. He means dollars. Probably I could bargain and go away with one or two. The cost of a small picture of a pink infant by Renoir.

I thank them and say I will talk to the client. Wonderful melon. I go back to the hotel but I cannot sleep. Finally it all becomes clear. The young mujaheddin looters take the ivories to their commanders who smuggle them into Pakistan. Because they are too “hot” to be sold in the open market, they are sold, probably for not very much, to Pakistani politicians, who are delighted to launder the money made by managing the drugs trade, and convinced that they will be able to sell them to the West for a bomb.

The fundamental mistake they make is to think that anyone wants them. They are not famous enough to excite governments or the media. The “political correctness” now paralysing human thought, this invisible, but increasingly powerful, enemy forbids ransom.

Anyway, Afghanistan is nobody and was at that point in the hands of Taliban fundamentalists. The Taliban could not care less. Nude women, elephants...for god’s sake.

So to whom do these ivories really belong: to India where they were produced? To Afghanistan where they were found? To the French who dug them up? In my opinion they belong to anyone willing to look after them for future generations.

The shadows of a past civilisation are vanishing. They do not interest the present civilisation.

Three of the Begram ivories, Indian, School of Mathura, second/third century AD. Since these events, six ivories have been deposited at the Musée Guimet and two with the Bibliotheca Afghanica in Basel, until such time as the Kabul Museum is fit to take them back

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'My evening with Kalashnikovs and the Begram ivories'