For decades, fraudsters and smugglers have been hand in glove in forging and smuggling artefacts found in the historical sites of Pakistan. The so-called experts reproduce the relics in black stone and chemically treat them for an antique look. These counterfeits are then mixed with the original ones and smuggled out to China, Thailand and other Far Eastern countries, reveals Idrees Bakhtiar
Priceless antiquities, especially of the Gandhara civilisation, including Buddha statues, dating back to thousands of years have been the prey of unscrupulous elements. They were excavated or stolen from different sites and smuggled out to various countries. The vandalism has been going on almost unchecked for decades. Rarely the smuggling of some of the precious relics is checked, such as the ones confiscated by the police last July.
The modus operandi may vary. Sometimes some smaller pieces are sent through international mail or in luggage. In most cases, the original relics are mixed with counterfeits to beguile the casual, careless eye of the concerned officials. This was the case when the police intercepted a container loaded with tonnes of Buddha statues and other artefacts at Ibrahim Haideri, a coastal village.
The container was booked for Sialkot, apparently for smuggling out the pieces to some country through a dry port. On the indication of the driver and another person, the police later raided a godown in Korangi and recovered some more relics, in all 395.
At the time of the seizure, it was not clear if the artefacts were original or counterfeit. However, initial examination showed that some of the boxes contained huge statues of Buddha; one being a 95-inch tall and 70-inch wide sculpture of Buddha in meditation on a lotus flower. There were two eight-foot Buddha statues among the sculptures, an official of the Sindh culture department was reported to have said.
As usual, the officials were not swift in action. The police, inept in dealing with such items, damaged some of the artefacts while shifting them to the Awami Colony police station. “Some of them were too heavy to be handled manually,” a police official says.
A small crane was later summoned, but it too could not handle the relics. Similarly, the finds at the Korangi godown remained there for some days, before they could be removed to the police station.
It took the court 21 days to hand over the custody of the confiscated items to the culture department and yet some more days to shift them all to the National Museum. The Sindh culture department is said to have prepared an inventory and its director Qasim Ali Qasim states, “They were also photographed.”
The police could not arrest the real culprits, as they succeeded in getting interim bail from a session’s court. However, the suspected smugglers were identified as Atif Butt and Asif Butt. Their interim bail was later confirmed, though they were directed to cooperate with the police in investigations.
Eye witnesses report that at the police station the precious relics lay open and unguarded. Some of them were broken as they had been thrown down from the container, being too heavy to handle. It was from the police station that at least one head, broken from a larger artefact, was removed by someone unidentified. There were rumours of at least three other pieces missing.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) government demanded their possession because the confiscated relics belonged to the Gandhara civilisation — as they were mostly Buddha statues. The federal government did not lag behind. Both authorities asked Karachi to handover the possession to them, as they might have been clandestinely dug from some historical site, but nevertheless must belong to the KPK. The Sindh government, however, has taken the stand that the antiquities are a case property and will remain in their possession until the case is decided by the court.
The KPK government even sent a team of experts to examine the relics. It has been reported that the experts termed them as ‘counterfeits’. The Sindh government’s concerned department disagrees with the examination of the KPK experts. Director Qasim Ali Qasim of the culture department, Sindh, who received the report last Monday, states that 161 of the artefacts are genuine, while the rest are counterfeit, but have an ‘art value’ as they have been expertly replicated or copied.
This is not the first time in Pakistan that huge quantities of antiquities were recovered from the possession of smugglers. At least 81 precious items were reportedly stolen from Taxila Museum in 1999. These included statues of Greek deities, one of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and the other of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. They were the only Greek statues ever found in Pakistan. Nothing is known as to what happened to them.
Not only that the artefacts are stolen and smuggled out on an almost regular basis, in June 1996, the statues of twin Hindu goddesses Uma-Maheshwara were exported to the United States for $1.5 million, on the basis of a surreptitiously issued No Objection Certificate by the federal government. Some other artefacts of Pakistani origin, 198 to be precise, confiscated by the British government in January 2007 have not been returned so far, according to reports.
For decades, fraudsters and smugglers have been hand in glove in forging and smuggling artefacts found in the historical sites of Pakistan. The so-called experts reproduce the relics in black stone and chemically treat them for an antique look. These counterfeits are then mixed with the original ones and smuggled out to China, Thailand and other Far Eastern countries.
Information gathered by Dawn shows that during the last decade and a half, some precious relics were recovered from the possession of smugglers in Taxila, Nowshera, Karachi, Peshawar, Kohat and other places. These include pieces of Ashoka’s time and some dating back to BC.
Intriguingly, smugglers are quoted in several newspapers to have admitted smuggling antiquities out to Thailand, Europe, America and other countries. One of them was reported to have disclosed that they find some old sites, pay huge amounts to the police and dig. “At a minimum I have sold 20 big Buddha statues for around $20,000 a piece.” He is reportedly now a millionaire.
Though an Antiquities Act actually exists, with rules and regulations for banning the digging, selling and even movement of relics, the concerned departments hardly make an effort to keep a vigilant eye on smuggling of this precious national wealth. If they catch a consignment, one source states, it is only by chance. “You never know how many of these Buddhas and other artefacts have been smuggled out,” explains one expert. After all one can find Pakistani, Taxilan Gandhara antiques in many parts of the world, he says, “From where did they reach these countries? Well, these crossed our borders to begin the journey.”