IN Pakistan, where crime is all too common, the plundering of our historical legacy doesn’t often get the attention it deserves. That it should is underscored by a report in this newspaper yesterday that some 60 apparently smuggled Gandhara artefacts went under the hammer at Christie’s in New York in March 2011, even though the matter was being pursued by Pakistan’s Department of Archaeology and Museums. These items included bronze and stone depictions of the Buddha — prominent among them was a statue of the fasting Buddha — and constituted priceless treasures in terms of their historical and cultural significance. But since nothing passes through an auction house without a price being settled on its head, the fasting Buddha went for more than $11m. It seems the artefacts had been illegally excavated and smuggled out from Pakistan in the early 1980s. While the archaeology department and the Pakistan embassy in Washington had been pressing for their return, they could not provide details of exactly when and from where the items were stolen. Moreover, there is no bilateral agreement between the two countries for the protection of cultural heritage. These factors allowed the auction to take place.
Pakistan’s history and its pre-Islamic heritage are being sundered from the very people who should be fighting to conserve them. A few months ago, Karachi police acted on a tip-off to intercept an entire container of Gandhara-era relics meant, no doubt, for foreign shores. Yet even there, the lack of respect for such irreplaceable artefacts was in evidence: the pieces were handled so roughly that many of them were damaged. The unpalatable truth is that Pakistan’s own lack of interest in conserving its heritage is matched by the voraciousness with which such relics are sought in other parts of the world. It’s up to us to ensure that such theft does not take place.