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The advertisement described the grey schist figure of the emaciated Siddhartha, or ‘Fasting Buddha’, as the most fascinating 3rd/4th century Gandhara piece in Christie's entire collection. – File Photo

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has claimed a fasting Buddha statue put up for auction by Christie with a starting price of $4.45 million and wants it back.

Dawn has learnt that at UNESCO's intervention, the world famous fine arts auction house has stopped the planned auction and has asked the Pakistani authorities to prove their claim. Sources in the Capital Administration Development Division (CADD) a sharp-eyed UNESCO official in Paris raised alarm after seeing a Christie advertisement about the auction.

The advertisement described the grey schist figure of the emaciated Siddhartha, or ‘Fasting Buddha’, as the most fascinating 3rd/4th century Gandhara piece in Christie's entire collection. It came to the auctioneer from a private collector who acquired it in Germany back in 1981.

The UNESCO official's alertness, made Islamabad's Department of Archaeology and Museums (DOAM) look deeper for Pakistan-origin artifacts that might have reached the auctioneer surreptitiously for sale.

Indeed search revealed 60 more relics of Gandhara period lying with Christie with price tags from $2,000 to $200,000.

A DOAM official called them Pakistan's cultural property, excavated illegally from Buddhist sites in Gandhara region and  smuggled out in early 1980s.

“We have checked all the sculptures on the (Christie) website. It is difficult to ascertain the authenticity and origin of all the sculptures from the photographs but some definitely look original. They can be certified only after physical and scientific examination.

“Nonetheless, it is quite clear that all artifacts belong to the ancient Gandhara region of Pakistan,” said the official.

Relief works, heads, busts, figures and stupa basis made up the collection. It includes a 3rd century grey schist relief of Buddha, price tag $182,500; a 7th/8th century bronze figure of seated Buddha from Swat Valley, price tag $122,500; a 4th/5th century Gandhara large stucco head of Buddha, starting auction price of $80,500, and a 2nd/3rd century grey schist figure of a pensive Buddha for going price of $68,500.

Other pricey relics in the collection include a 2nd/3rd century grey schist relief of Buddha and another grey schist head of Buddha from the same period for $30,000. Several more had the price starting from $2,000 upwards.

Pakistan is demanding that these artifacts be returned to the country of origin under UNESCO convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970. It obliges UNESCO to take appropriate steps to recover and return any cultural property to its country of origin at the request of a State Party.

Toby Unsik of the Communications Department of Christie, responding to a Dawn e-mail said: “We take our responsibilities in relation to the sale of cultural property very seriously and abide strictly by the laws in the countries in which we operate.

We have invited the Pakistan authorities to provide us with full details of the grounds for any concerns they may have in relation to the sale of this lot and await hearing from them.”

He declined to comment further until Christie heard from the Pakistan government.

If this collection does return to Pakistan, it will be the second time that the country gets back its cultural property. The first time was when the USA returned a lot of more than 40 relics in 2008-09.