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Ancient Afghan artifacts salvaged from black market

By Susannah Palk for CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • 20 ivory artifacts looted from Afghanistan's national museum have been returned
  • They are between two and four thousand years old
  • Bought on the black market the relics have been conserved by the British Museum
  • They now form part of the exhibition "Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World"

London, England (CNN) -- Feared lost forever, 20 ancient ivory artifacts looted from Afghanistan's national museum were presented to the country's president, Hamid Karzai, in London Tuesday.

The 2,000-year-old artifacts are the latest additions to the internationally acclaimed exhibition "Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World," which starts its UK run at the British Museum this week.

Stolen during Afghanistan's civil war between 1992 and 1994, the ivory inlays were once part of a hoard of treasures found at the ancient city of Begram, north of modern-day Kabul.

"These are an extraordinary set of ivories," said Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum. "Stolen from the National Museum in Kabul, bought by a London dealer specifically to return them, restored by conservators at the British Museum ... and after the exhibition they will go back."

It shows what an important role the international community can play in recovering material that has been stolen and has been sold and can then be returned.
--Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum.
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Originally part of a set of Indian furniture owned by the Kushan rulers from the 1st century A.D., the ivories were first discovered by a French archaeologist in 1937.

Found in a concealed room in the ruins of Begram's ancient palace, it's believed the treasures were hidden in a moment of crisis. They then lay forgotten for almost 2,000 years.

The artifacts have now been given back to the National Museum of Afghanistan thanks to a philanthropic donor who bought the ivories from various black market dealers.

"(He's) retrieved what is probably the largest single group of antiquities that were known to be looted from the national museum during the civil war," said exhibition curator, St John Simpson.

"It shows what an important role the international community can play in recovering material that has been stolen and has been sold and can then be returned," added MacGregor.

According to the British Museum, it's estimated around 70% of the artifacts once found in Afghanistan's national museum have been looted or destroyed over the past 30 years.

Often the only way these precious relics are recovered is through international border agencies working in collaboration with museums and archaeological experts.

So far, the UK has sent back one crate of seized artifacts to Afghanistan, with another shipment due to go back in the near future.

The rest of the exhibition's 200 relics, spanning 4,000 years of the country's ancient history, are only with us today thanks to the actions of a few dedicated individuals.

They were hidden on the eve of the Soviet invasion in 1979 by a handful of Afghans and lay undiscovered in vaults underneath Afghanistan's presidential palace for over thirty years. Now they are part of this traveling exhibition, which raises awareness and much-needed funds for the national museum in Kabul.

"Although we use these cliche terms for marketing purposes, these objects really do sing," said Simpson.

"They show the fragility of cultural heritage and how the Afghans who saved them for the world have done such a fantastic job raising cultural awareness and showing there is much more to Afghanistan then the cliched news clips that you normally hear or see."