Starving Buddha sculpture returned to Pakistan

But leading London expert says it’s a fake

A group of artefacts said to have been illicitly exported from Pakistan were handed over to the Pakistani government on 23 January by the US Department of Homeland Security. A prominent London art expert believes that one of the objects restituted, a “Starving Buddha”, is a fake. However, US Customs said that the Pakistani government had determined that the objects were authentic.

The returned antiquities arrived in Newark, New Jersey, in September 2005 in two shipments, which the intended recipient abandoned. Officials will not release the name of the addressee. A US Customs investigation re?vealed misrepresentations by the shipper.

According to US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which received assistance in identifying the objects, Pakistani and American experts determined that the items were illegally excavated from sites in the northern part of the country. Timothy Carey, special agent of the ICE in charge of the case, told The Art Newspaper that two separate experts verified the objects’ authenticity after reviewing them, including Fazal Dad Kakar, director general of museums and archaeology for the government of Pakistan, who examined the objects in person.

“The Pakistanis were ecstatic to receive the Buddha,” Mr Carey said. According to ICE, some of the antiquities had been damaged, indicating that thieves had used crude methods to illegally chip statues away from their archaeological sites. Thomas E. Manifase, deputy special agent in charge of Newark investigations of ICE, said that the investigation had led to intelligence “that may very well lead to recovery of other stolen artifacts in the future”.

Mr Carey said that Dr Kakar had determined that the “Starving Buddha” was only the second known example of such a buddha; a “Fasting Buddha” is at the Lahore Museum, Pakistan. Also returned were Buddhist statues, sculptures, and a rare cup from the second century BC. Under Pakistani law, it is illegal to export cultural antiquities without express government permission.

But John Eskenazi, the London-based dealer and expert on South Asian art, who has seen a picture of the “Starving Buddha”, told The Art Newspaper that the item was not authentic. “There is no real serious scholarly attention by Pakistani authorities to Pakistani or Gandharan works of art. Afghani and Pakistani authorities have never looked after their patrimony with any type of attention, and might not have had the resources to authenticate such a piece. A lot of fakes are made for the international market.” He said the returned Buddha was “a very bad copy of the most famous piece in Pakistan.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 178 March 2007