Trafficking In Antiquities During A Time Of War – Analysis


By Bruce G. Richardson

When Russian archaeologist Viktor Sarianidi excavated Tilya Tepe in 1978, 21,000 bejeweled, gold artifacts created during the Greco-Bactrian era known as The Golden Hoard of Bactria were reported as inventoried, photographed, and catalogued. But in consideration of the time (1978), and the fact that the Kremlin was considering military intervention in Afghanistan in support of the Communist regime, it seems prudent to challenge the veracity of Professor Sarianidi’s findings.

Lest we forget, the Kremlin was at this time in control of the monitoring and accounting practices utilized for the export of Afghanistan’s natural gas. We have since that time learned that Moscow was cheating Afghanistan by installing the monitors in Soviet Central Asia while paying Afghanistan only one-third of the world price. Even at that, Moscow provided no hard cash to the Afghan Treasury, but rather used the revenue to finance its puppet governments and armies of Taraki and Amin. The point of this return to history is to demonstrate that Russia, as with other powerful nations, is not above reproach.

As for the Golden Hoard of Bactria, inarguably an exquisite collection of jewelry and funerary objects from centuries-old civilizations, it is of vital importance to maintaining the integrity of Afghanistan’s cultural provenance and inheritance. For the National Geographic Society, one of the immense tribe of Washington savants to negotiate a sub-standard agreement with Afghanistan is unconscionable. While they maintain that the Afghan Government “dictated the terms,” we must not forget that Afghanistan is under foreign occupation, and the NGS, like many American think tanks and their assorted functionaries, often work in parallel to the US Government. As a case in point, the fact that Egypt was afforded special dispensation for the loan of their antiquities reflects their status as an ally in the so-called “war on terror.” Afghanistan therefore, may have little or no choice but to accept the NGS proposal.


As one example of parallel government connections, an organization called the “American Council for Cultural Policy” met recently with the administration urging a relaxation of federal antiquities laws. The purpose of this lobbying organization is to pave the way for the exploitation of both Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s cultural artifacts dating back many thousands of years. The organization is comprised solely of politically-connected lobbyists and dealers in antiquities who are large contributors to political parties. Both the Bush and Obama Administrations have shown a profound disregard for humanitarian law as the architects of “war of aggression” and it is therefore folly to expect that cultural protections would be on their radar.

Returning American soldiers, under the cover of “national security” and thus immune from customs inspection, have been found trafficking in Afghan and Iraqi antiquities. Though international law dictates that an occupying power is responsible for protecting the occupied country’s cultural property, the Americans only saw fit to protect the Oil Ministry in the case of Iraq as the great museums of Baghdad were being systematically looted. Some 5,000 books, including ancient Qur’ans and 10,000 rare manuscripts and documents were put to the torch under the disinterested eye of American forces. Five-thousand year old clay cuneiform tablets depicting the saga of Gilgamesh were looted. When this sacrilege was brought to the attention of then U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld he, in his typical bureaucratic demeanor, shrugged and said “stuff happens.” As for Afghanistan’s antiquities, under both Bush and Obama the subject of preserving Afghanistan’s antiquities has not been on the agenda for discussion.

While visiting Kabul in 1997, a security guard who wished to remain anonymous told me that, during the ten-year occupation, the Soviets trans-shipped numerous air and land containers of Afghan artifacts to the USSR. Also mentioned was that Soviet 40th Army Commander General Boris Gromov had removed a magnificent Tekke/Turkoman carpet from Darulaman Palace that spanned some ninety meters in length, cutting it into several smaller pieces to parcel out as souvenirs when returning to his home in Russia.

There is also evidence that the soldiers of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud commandeered artifacts from the Kabul Museum prior to retreating under pressure from Taliban forces. Cultural activist and author Nancy Hatch Dupree had met with Massoud in Kabul and asked to inspect the Kabul Museum’s repository along with the integrity of the inventory, but was denied access.

During the 1990s, a rumor surfaced that Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto had obtained a number of priceless Begrami ivories crafted during the Kushan period from an illicit dealer in Peshawar. In response, a founding member of the International Committee for the Salvation of the Cultural Heritage of Afghanistan, the late Mehria Mustamandy drafted a letter to Bhutto demanding an accounting. In response, a letter from the Prime Minister was in the affirmative, “Yes I do possess a number of Begrami ivories which have been placed in escrow for safe keeping until such time as Afghanistan returns to peace and they can be reunited with other antiquities in the Kabul Museum.” From that time forward there has been no further word on the disposition of the priceless artifacts.

The wholesale exploitation of Afghanistan’s artifacts is part of a larger pattern begun during the 19th Century, when European “explorers” traversed Afghanistan and Central Asia. While engaged under cover as “explorers,” our intrepid British, American, German, and French interlopers were in fact spies and treasure hunters. Notwithstanding sponsorship by prestigious academic and scientific institutions such as the Royal Geographic Society of London, spies of the British East India Company engaged in espionage and treasure hunting under anthropological, archaeological, and geographic examination for personal enrichment and royal acclaim. As records of the East India Company, recently made available, have shown, history has a way of exposing the true intentions of the early luminaries from the Royal Geographic Society. Recipient of the coveted “Gold Medal for Exploration,” Charles Masson represents but one of history’s glaring examples of faux-academics or scientists whose real mission encompassed intelligence gathering, cartography, and prospecting for ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese, Kushan numismatics and pilferage of other rare sculptured wonders of the Buddhist era.

It is thus that many of Afghanistan’s ancient treasures are now a part of the collections housed in prestigious museums in London, Moscow, Washington, and New York. The exquisite Koh-i-Noor diamond for example, a magnificent gem that has graced the royal crowns of three British queens was expropriated by British officers following their military victory over Ranjit Singh in the Punjab. Ranjit Singh had originally extorted the gem from Shah Shuja, but like the mousy one-eyed Sikh leader, Shah Shuja did not and could not have had the requisite, lawful title to this wonderful and priceless (296 carat) gem. Legal title, therefore, had not passed to the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Some years ago, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar demanded a return of the stone from Great Britain. To date, however, Whitehall has refused its repatriation.

War represents the single most danger for the preservation of a country’s antiquities. During the Taliban period, many artifacts and archaeological sites were destroyed through ignorance of their cultural and historical value and through massive American aerial bombardment. Following the US invasion and occupation in 2001, the American military, under the fraudulent cover of the “War on Terror,” and like their 19th Century counterparts, eagerly engaged in the illegal acquisition and looting of Afghanistan’s artifacts. War is a terribly destructive force that while often lending itself to rhetorical, righteous pursuits, in actuality knows no moral and or ethical bounds.

Literally tons of antiquities have been plundered by these so-called “explorers” and removed to the West with little or no concern for the provenance/title of the items involved. Antiquity trafficking is illegal under existing international and national laws, conventions, and treaties with all the major offenders as signatories. With extensive political connections, however, the governments, museums, and wealthy collectors have been successful at mitigating or thwarting litigation brought by many victim countries seeking repatriation of their priceless antiquities or compensatory damages. Countries such as Greece, Turkey and China have endeavored to reclaim their inheritance through UNESCO, an international watchdog organization charged with the protection of antiquities, and through litigation filed with respective justice departments of offending countries, but to no avail. One can only judge this collective indifference as cultural piracy, arrogance, and colonialism.

As a result of ancient artifact trafficking by military members from Britain, Russia, and now the U.S., and with a demonstrable indifference by the U.N. and other international organizations charged with judicial responsibility as to holding offending countries accountable and with upholding international law, there can be no doubt of the degradation of the cultural history of Afghanistan. Until and unless the international community makes a serious attempt to reign in traffickers in stolen artifacts and to include directors of prestigious museums and government-sponsored institutions, Afghanistan, as with many countries unsupported by an aggressive, enormous military capability will see their cultural heritage and history irreparably impaired. These are issues that fail to resonate, with few exceptions, amongst the self-serving antiquities cognoscente who are residents of and have the backing of the powerful nations, and the ever-accommodating, fawning media. To fail to protect a country’s antiquities is to fail to acknowledge their cultural identity and their history.

Bruce G. Richardson has been a contributing columnist for the Afghanistan Mirror, Dawat, and the Afghan Post since 1990. He is the author of Afghanistan, Ending the Reign of Soviet Terror (1996-98 editions) and Afghanistan, A Search for Truth (2007, 2008 and 2009 editions). Under USIA auspices, he conducted photo workshops for the Afghan Media Project in 1986 and traveled as a freelance journalist to Afghanistan in 1986, 1987, 1990, 1991, and 1997.


Founded in 1946, the Middle East Institute is the oldest Washington-based institution dedicated solely to the study of the Middle East. Its founders, scholar George Camp Keiser and former US Secretary of State Christian Herter, laid out a simple mandate: “to increase knowledge of the Middle East among the citizens of the United States and to promote a better understanding between the people of these two areas.”

One thought on “Trafficking In Antiquities During A Time Of War – Analysis

  • June 16, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    You’re factually mistaken on several points. I’ll correct one. Soldiers are not immune from customs searches. I’d also like to point out that the looting and destruction you talk about in Iraq was done by it’s citizens not the US military


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