Floods, drugs and cultural patrimony: Tackling antiquities trafficking in Pakistan

Pakistan is a repository of relics, an archive of antiquities that is the envy of the world. And yet, its treasures have been trafficked, its heritage horse-traded and its past plundered.
Published February 2, 2023

Last November, a treasure trove arrived in Pakistan. Its contents — a series of ancient artefacts smuggled out of the country in the 1990s — were recovered and repatriated by the United States following a lengthy federal investigation into the racketeering operations of an Indian-American art dealer.

According to the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Subhash Kapoor controlled and coordinated transnational trafficking rings that illicitly introduced cultural commodities from South and Central Asia into western art markets. His gallery at Madison Avenue fetched fortunes, dealing articles from the black market to a directory of doyens and art aficionados over the course of decades. Even the Met Museum — the jewel in the crown of New York’s cultural scene — procured artworks for its collections that were connected to Kapoor’s illegitimate enterprise.

Providentially, Operation Hidden Idol saw Homeland Security disrupt his network of agents and co-conspirators, exposing the extent of its contraband transacting.

Thousands of antiquities were recovered from storage houses, including 192 items of Pakistani provenance, which ranged from Graeco-Buddhist sculptures to figurines excavated at Mehrgarh, Balochistan’s ancient archaeological complex.

Today, a good number of these items are exhibited at the Islamabad Museum where they have come to represent resistance and resilience in the face of the menace of international antiquities trafficking. It is a heart-warming homecoming story — but it also begs the question, why was Pakistan’s cultural heritage susceptible to criminal exploitation in the first place?

Smuggled artefacts

It is no secret that our national treasures have been trafficked for decades. Before Kapoor’s case, the courts convicted Nayef Homsi and Nancy Wiener, dealers whose Upper East Side galleries traded goods illegally imported from Pakistan, inter alia, into the hands of the US elite.

Even legitimate institutions have been implicated in merchandising antiquities whose provenance remains shrouded in secrecy.

For instance, in 2011 a ‘Fasting Buddha’ statue having its origins in ancient Gandhara was almost auctioned by Christie’s, the world-famous fine arts house. Fortuitously, a perceptive Parisian UNESCO official took notice of the item and sounded the alarm, allowing the Department of Archaeology and Museums (DOAM) to intervene and mount a challenge to its proprietary status. Further back in time, French customs authorities seized a series of packages at Charles de Gaulles airport in 2006, their contents comprising vases, goblets, urns and busts associated with the Indus Valley Civilisation.

Evidently, then, there is a real problem with our antiquities being smuggled out of sight and sold surreptitiously. And despite increased awareness, there is no sign of the tide stemming any time soon.

In fact, a concoction of economic, geopolitical and climatological concerns that has come to the fore makes it more likely that this exodus will only accelerate in the years to come. So let us attempt to unravel the Gordian Knots which are producing and perpetuating this problem.

Legislative commitments

As a jurist, my first port of call when interrogating this issue is the law. Given the preponderance of antiquities that have wound up in the West, one may be forgiven for thinking that the legal framework governing the movement of cultural assets in Pakistan is deficient. However, a close inspection of the statutory provisions operating at both the provincial and federal levels reveals a remarkably robust regime.

In essence, the relevant legal architecture is built on a single foundation-stone — the Antiquities Act 1975, which prohibits trade in antiquities both domestically and internationally. As such, Pakistan’s cultural property is de facto nationalised. Its exportation is permissible only in a limited set of circumstances, such as where necessary for research or conservation purposes.

Contravening these provisions may give rise to criminal liability punishable by way of financial or custodial penalties. It is also relevant that Pakistan is signatory to several international instruments which impose additional duties on states to protect and preserve cultural heritage. Theoretically, then, the building blocks of a strong system are in place — law, sanctions and scrutiny.

And yet, the egress of antiquities continues. So if the law is not the issue, where does the problem stem from?

From narcotics to antiques

There is probably no single answer to this question. But deconstructing certain societal phenomena may go some way towards explaining why our cultural assets remain vulnerable.

It is a sad truth that organised crime networks have proliferated in Pakistan since the close of the Cold War. Criminological literature has given extensive treatment to the development of trafficking operations carried out by organised criminal groups in South Asia. Many syndicates with a history of trafficking firearms and narcotics during the height of the Afghan-Soviet conflict have become alive to the lucrative potential of vending antiquities on the international and black markets.

For these groups, cultural assets are relatively easy to access and commodify. In certain corners of the country, cultural heritage is exposed to the public at large, with a negligible or non-existent on-site security presence to provide a deterrence against looting and pillage.

This signals a green light to would-be marauders, many of whom are simply lay people living in abject poverty, manipulated by local mafia dons into plundering derelict and dilapidated locations in return for small stipends.

Disease, disaster and dogma

These peculiar dynamics have intensified since 2020. The need to protect the public from Covid-19 drew critical resources away from preservation and conservation efforts towards public health initiatives. Although this was essential to prevent fatalities and preserve life, it left certain cultural heritage sites vulnerable to exploitation. As the curtain now falls on the pandemic, those resources have reportedly not been restored, leaving key locations without sufficient safeguards.

To complicate matters further, last summer’s monsoon season saw flash flooding inundate one-third of Pakistan. Due to the unprecedented rains, the archaeological integrity of countless cultural heritage sites — including Sindh’s 5,000-year-old city-state, Mohenjo-Daro — was adversely impacted. This situation has perversely played into the hands of tomb-raiders by facilitating their ability to sack sites and misappropriate fragments of history.

By the same token, let us not forget that entire communities were displaced and made to endure severe economic hardship this past year. Thousands remain without access to basic healthcare and subsistence provisions. In these conditions, it goes without saying that the susceptibility of vulnerable individuals to criminal exploitation is increased.

Regrettably, this risk is compounded by the production of narratives framed in the language of religious orthodoxy. In regions with conservative populations, the obvious pre-Islamic or Dharmic character of much of the heritage in question is construed as being at cross purposes with the iconoclasm of Islam. In some instances, this is invoked to manipulate away moral compunctions surrounding the question of looting and illicit trading.

Afghanistan to Pakistan

Lastly, it would be remiss not to mention the threat posed by the Taliban. The isolation of the Afghan regime from the ranks of the global economy may correlate with an increase in black-market operations, the sale of antiquities representing a last-ditch attempt to breathe life into a flailing economy. Pakistan is directly impinged, to the extent that Afghanistan is landlocked and has no access to maritime routes. As such, its antiquities are almost always trafficked into Pakistan with the assistance of local collaborators.

Peter Campbell — a maritime archaeologist whose research applies network paradigms towards understanding illicit antiquities trading — has detailed how these items are smuggled first into Pakistani border towns and then to major cities.

There, they are concealed within cargo and everyday furnishings, before being exported (mainly) to the UAE and Switzerland where they pass into criminal hands. This illustrates Pakistan’s particular predicament: it is both a source and a transit country, which is perhaps now more perilous than ever given the resurgence of the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) on Pakistani sovereign territory in recent weeks. It follows that there is a real risk that Pakistan will emerge as a trafficking hub for both domestic and Afghan antiquities.

Regulation-legalisation: Does it work?

So where does the solution lie? One school of thought posits that Pakistan’s export controls are antiquated. Its proponents view the blanket ban on exporting cultural assets as driving trade in this sphere underground. According to them, legislative reform should be enacted so as to create the conditions for a legitimate domestic antiquities market. By legalising and regulating trade in antiquities and artefacts, the state would be disincentivising illicit trafficking and setting the scene for a new economic sector to take root and thrive.

Although this mode of thinking is gaining traction in certain quarters, I am personally not persuaded that reversing the export ban will prevent Pakistan’s cultural treasures from being trafficked. This is primarily because the key players in the theatres of illicit trade — organised criminal groups — are unlikely to cease their operations simply due to a shift in Pakistan’s position on internally trading antiquities.

The reality is that such actors are not the kind to have a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment and reinvent their enterprise, which is in many cases linked intrinsically to transnational narcotics trafficking, as legitimate art dealerships. As such, it is not likely that changes in Pakistan’s posture will detract mafias from trafficking cultural goods into the lucrative markets of Europe and America, where the returns on their criminality have proven particularly profitable in the past.

The way forward

Instead, one should strike at the root causes. In my view, a series of small, systemic changes could help tackle the trafficking tsunami on the horizon. There are three, simple steps Pakistan can take tout de suite.

First, it should enact enhanced border checks. Pakistan Customs and the provinces’ frontier forces have regularly routed out contraband operations, which is to be applauded no doubt. But there are clearly rafts of cargo and containers entering and leaving the country on a regular basis that contain and camouflage cultural assets intended for illicit purposes.

Our agencies would benefit from a programme of training, inspection and increased anti-corruption measures to prevent goods from passing between jurisdictions unnoticed or, worse, with a subtle nod from the powers that be.

Second, from a law enforcement perspective, intervention strategies should be devised pursuant to intelligence products. The nexus between organised crime, terror financing and antiquities trafficking is extensive. As such, problem profiling, network analysis and tactical assessments would help build a more detailed picture of the actors driving and coordinating the criminality.

While there are no doubt lone actors who pillage independently, the reality is that antiquities trafficking is directed and executed by organised criminal groups with reach, resource and relationships traversing the transnational underworlds. With the novel challenges posed by drugs, floods and the TTP, now is the time to pool investigative, forensic and legal capabilities to map the web of actors, trace the flow of funds and develop strategies to disrupt the channels of criminality.

Third, there is a critical need for greater record-keeping. A National Antiquities Register would catalogue all cultural assets in a single, accessible inventory, consolidating and complementing the patchwork of regional registers that may already exist at the provincial level.

New discoveries, whether made by archaeologists or amateurs, should be made subject to mandatory reporting provisions. In this schema, cultural assets would be documented and digitally itemised, such that recovery protocols could be swiftly enacted as and when items go missing.

This may involve sharing details recovered from the Register with internal and partner border force agencies, alerting them to the risk of illicit exports presenting at their checks, ports and docks. Many countries already operate such registers. Given the challenges confronting Pakistan, is it not time for us to follow suit?

Ours is a phenomenal country, a mosaic of peoples and cultures. Its landscape is punctuated by shrines and stupas, mosques and mausolea, temples and trenches, each telling a story of the societies that once called this land home.

From the Greeks to the Gakhars, the Kushans to the Kalash, the Indic to the Islamic, numerous nations have contributed their civilisational treasures to the fabric of this realm. Accordingly, Pakistan is a repository of relics, an archive of antiquities that is the envy of the world. And yet, its treasures have been trafficked, its heritage horse-traded and its past plundered.

In the past few years, a combination of socioeconomic and geopolitical concerns — including floods, drugs, poverty and terrorism — have aggravated these age-old issues. Lest irreparable damage be done to Pakistan’s cultural patrimony, a new vision for the country’s counter-trafficking and antiquities protection apparatus is urgently needed. Developing our policy positions and law enforcement responses may be the best place to start.

Header image: Clay ware of the Indus valley civilisation displayed at the Pakistani pavilion in Expo 2020 Dubai. — Photo: Lal Nallath/ Shutterstock.com