During an unusual ceremony held recently at the Pakistan embassy in Paris, French authorities handed over some 445 ancient art pieces to the diplomats. These contained not only terracotta human and animal figurines, but also vases, jars, plates, bowls and many other objects, stolen from the ancient Indus Valley archaeological sites, mostly situated in Balochistan.
The thrilling adventure actually began on September 13, 2006, when French Customs agents at the Charles de Gaulle Airport seized a parcel containing 17 objects coming from an unmentioned sender in Pakistan and addressed to a Parisian art gallery. The accompanied bill amounted to a modest sum of 1, 210 Euros.
Experts were soon able to identify the ceramic pieces as belonging to a period more than 3,000 years before the birth of Jesus Christ and certainly robbed from a number of archaeological sites in Balochistan. Their market value was estimated at 7,500 Euros.
France returns stolen archaeological treasure to Pakistan dating back to more than 5,000 years
Instead of taking immediate action, the French Customs officials decided to wait a while, allowing the manipulators some more time to carry on with their illegal adventure. Hardly two more weeks had gone by when the gallery owner received another bigger parcel, this time containing 93 ceramic pots and vases that were valued by the experts at 45,000 Euros.
Now it was the moment for the investigation to take a judicial course with judges and lawyers moving in. By June 2007 more than 330 similar objects were seized, their total value having been assessed at around 140,000 Euros. It was discovered that the lucrative business had been going on since 1990 but had taken on an immense proportion since the beginning of the year 2000. Judges ordered an immediate return of these historical treasures to the country of their origin.
The recovered pieces mainly belong to the Nal and Kully archaeological sites situated near the towns of Khuzdar, Kolwa and Lasbela in south-east Balochistan. More than a hundred of these spots, discovered almost a century ago by the well-known archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein in the British days, have rarely been excavated. A number of stone houses along the magnificently paved streets in small towns such as Murda Sang, Nindowari and Sohr Dal still remain impeccable.
However, Pakistan was not the sole target of these traffickers. Only last year, following nearly 50 operations by the French authorities, some 15,000 artefacts were seized, which included not only stolen archaeological pieces but also legendary artistic masterpieces.
The most startling of these acts of vandalism came to light on February 26, 2018, when the police, during a routine checking, discovered an unclaimed suitcase on a bus on the Ferrière-en-Brie Highway. Inside the suitcase was a painting signed by Degas with the year of creation 1877 clearly visible on the canvas — the masterpiece was stolen in 2009 from the Cantini Museum in Marseille.
Two years ago, during a ceremony much similar to the recent one at the Pakistani embassy, the French authorities returned to the Egyptian diplomats, eight antique statues belonging to the period of the Pharaohs. They were found in the baggage of a British resident returning home on a Paris-London train.
However, this obviously lucrative racket is not limited to archaeological and art pieces. On February 16, 2015, the French agents discovered a dinosaur skeleton, dating back some 60 million years and stolen from the Confluences Museum in the city of Lyon. Its value was estimated at 700,000 Euros!
The writer is an art critic based in Paris
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 21st, 2019