Monday, March 05, 2007


Looters are still ransacking the treasures of Afghanistan, where many antiquities were destroyed by the Taliban. The International Council of Museums on Friday launched a plan to contain the scourge. The group published a "red list of Afghanistan antiquities at risk," hoping to alert collectors, dealers and museums to be vigilant when they come face to face with valuable objects that could have been stolen.

"Ancient sites and monuments, ranging from the Old Stone Age to the 20th Century, are being attacked and systematically looted," an ICOM statement said.

Before it was ousted, the Taliban regime used religious arguments to justify its destruction of ancient Buddhist statues and other priceless art works. Now, greed and chaos are contributing to the sacking of the nation's heritage, the group said.

The country's fledgling government has said that — with its police and army struggling against resurgent Taliban fighters, warlords and opium barons — it has insufficient resources for protecting archaeological sites and museums.

Much has been made of an exhibit at Paris' Guimet Museum, where 22,000 pieces of jewel-encrusted crowns, golden daggers and baubles from an ancient burial mound are back on display after being hidden for years by Afghans at great personal risk.

Missing, however, are more than 55,000 art objects that were stolen from all over the country since the 1980s, archaeologist Prof. Zemayalai Tarzi said.

"Never has a country been looted so systematically as Afghanistan," he said. "It was before the Taliban, it was during the Taliban, it was after. And it continues," he said.

The International Council of Museums' red list does not include objects already stolen, but highlights those categories that would most likely be targeted in looting. It includes elegantly designed pottery and statuettes from the 3rd millennium BC, golden reliquaries from the 1st century and Islamic panels from the 13th century.

Artifacts from Afghan burial sites have turned up in fancy auction houses and antique shops in London, Tokyo and New York.

Verhaegen said that smuggling routes were intentionally complicated. For example: through the Khyber Pass to Pakistan's Peshawar, on to Lebanon, and then via the airport either in Brussels or Amsterdam to a final destination in Switzerland or the United States. "The more transit points you have, the more difficult it is to retrace the origins," Verhaegen said. Certificates could be changed along the way to make the art appear legitimate.


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