WASHINGTON: A relic showing Gautama Buddha meditating under the tree of awakening was among the 45 antiquities that the Manhattan District Attorney’s office returned to the people of Pakistan this week.
The repatriated items include a Gandharan frieze featuring seven figures of Buddha beside a Bodhisattva Maitreya (a friendly Buddha), a Gandharan box of religious relics and a gray schist relief of Panchika and his consort Hariti Panchika. The relics also include a Hariti Stele, a gray schist head of Buddha below a bodhi, the tree of awakening, and a Gandharan head of Buddha under the bodhi tree — all dating back to the 2nd Century CE.
In a statement released on Monday, the DA office recalled that in 2015, they and the US Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) office had executed multiple search warrants and seized close to 100 antiquities from “Nayef Homsi, a known trafficker involved in the illegal looting, exportation and sale of ancient art from Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and other nations”.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr. announced the return of 45 Pakistani antiquities, valued at approximately $250,000, during a repatriation ceremony attended by Pakistan’s Consul General Ayesha Ali and Erik Rosenblatt, a special agent of the HSI office.
“Many people believe the looting and theft of antiquities are injustices that only occurred in the past, but these crimes of culture are still being committed all over the world every day,” said District Attorney Vance. “I strongly encourage all collectors and gallery owners to conduct due diligence and ensure all pieces they purchase were lawfully acquired.”
Consul General Ali said that her office “vigorously followed” the case and “months of cooperation” between the consulate and authorities in Islamabad led to the recovery and return of these assets to Pakistan. She praised US officials for their “efforts in retrieving stolen cultural treasures of Pakistan”.
Mr Vance said he was “honoured to return these 45 beautiful artifacts to the people of Pakistan” as it belonged to them. He said his office was committed to “protecting global cultural heritage by investigating and returning stolen relics to their countries of origin.”
Peter C. Fitzhugh, Special Agent-in-Charge of HSI New York, noted that the high profit business of smuggling and trafficking antiquities encouraged some people to indulge in trafficking these valuables and emphasised the need for all communities to work together to discourage this trade.
“HSI recognises the importance of both international and local partnerships in locating pilfered antiquities and cultural property, and it is through these repatriations that new generations are able to experience a part of their nation’s story,” he said.
The Manhattan DA’s Antiquities Trafficking Unit also recently repatriated multiple pieces to India and Lebanon. On Aug 14 this year, 10 antiquities valued at more than $1 million were repatriated to India. These included five pieces from Maitreya (Nayef Homsi’s Gallery); three from the Nancy Wiener Gallery; and two that had been put up for auction at Christie’s Auction House — with the auction house cooperating fully in the investigation as soon as they were notified.
The items included a carved marble statue, known as an Apsara, dating back to the 10th century, which was stolen and trafficked abroad in 2006 and featured in Interpol’s stolen art database.
On Sept 30, a life-size Roman Head was repatriated to the Lebanese Republic. The piece, dating back to the 2nd century AD, is valued at approximately $300,000, and was stolen from the Temple of Eshmun in Lebanon during the 1979 civil war.
The DA’s Office seized the piece on June 19, 2020 from the Royal Athena Gallery in New York — with the gallery cooperating fully in this investigation.
To date, the unit has recovered several thousand stolen antiquities collectively valued at more than $150m. Many hundreds of these priceless artifacts have been returned to their rightful owners and repatriated to their countries of origin. Many hundreds more are ready to be repatriated as soon as the relevant countries can receive them amid the pandemic. But more than a thousand must be held awaiting criminal proceedings against the traffickers.
The items already returned include a gold coffin stolen from Egypt in the aftermath of the Egyptian Revolution in 2011; three marble Lebanese statues; a Roman mosaic excavated from the Ships of Nemi; an Etruscan relic stolen from the site of a historic necropolis known as “City of the Dead”; a marble sarcophagus fragment; a Buddhist sculpture stolen from an archaeological dig site; a pair of 12th century Indian statues; a collection of 8th Century BCE bronze statues; and a set of ancient Greek coins.
Published in Dawn, November 4th, 2020