Pakistan fails to halt auction of ‘smuggled’ artifacts
By: Jamal Shahid
ISLAMABAD: A statue of Fasting Buddha smuggled out of Pakistan has gone under the hammer at Christie’s, smashing the hopes of the Department of Archaeology and Museums (DOAM) to reclaim the priceless artifact from the 3rd/4th century. All because of bureaucratic wranglings at home and abroad.
Alerted by Pakistani representative to Unesco headquarters in Paris on March 25, 2011, about Christie’s advertisement offering the Buddha and scores of other Gandhara period art pieces for auction, the archaeology department raised alarm.
But its efforts to stop the sale got snarled in official communications between the Cabinet Division, the Pakistani embassy in Washington and the US State Department. Christie’s media handler Sung-Hee Park in New York had bad news when Dawn e-mailed him to know where the matter stands now. Came the reply on Thursday: “The Fasting Buddha did in fact sell as scheduled on March 22, 2011.”For how much?
According to the auctioneer’s website, it went for $11.125 million, two-and-half times the asking price of $4.45 million.
DOAM’s efforts fell victim to red tape over the United States long-standing demand for a bilateral agreement for the protection of cultural heritage. Documents seen by Dawn showed that DOAM wrote to Pakistan embassy in Washington about the artifacts with Christie’s needed to be brought back to Pakistan “the country of origin”.
But the embassy apparently did not push the case hard enough. When the embassy in Washington was contacted, it declined to comment officially. It was belatedly reported in September last year that Pakistani officials had claimed 60 artifacts of the Gandhara civilisation that Christie’s was planning to sell.
The DOAM said the artifacts were illegally excavated from Gandhara sites in Pakistan and smuggled out in early 1980s. At that time, Toby Unsik of Christie’s communications department had told Dawn: “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.” Now all the 60 artifacts claimed by Pakistan have been lost, auctioned like the Fasting Buddha.
“Yes, the 60 other ancient artifacts were also sold on March 22, 2011,” said Sung-Hee Park.
The collection included a grey schist relief of Buddha from the 3rd Century, priced at $182,500; a 7th/8th Century bronze figure of a seated Buddha, valued at $122,500; a 4th/5th Century stucco head of Buddha with a starting auction price of $80,500; and a schist figure of a pensive Budhisattva that was valued at $68,500.
Director General DOAM Dr Fazal Dad Kakar had demanded their return to Pakistan under the Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970.
However, its correspondence with the US authorities proved ineffective as the Americans continued with paperwork and exchange of letters, months after they had already gone under Christie’s hammer.
For instance, in August 2012, the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Homeland Security Investigations communicated its inability to pursue the issue.
Its reasoning was that the government of Pakistan had not provided documentation indicating the date and location from which the statue was stolen and the absence of a bilateral agreement between Pakistan and the United States for the protection of cultural heritage.
Pakistan claims that this is not due to incompetence. Dr Fazal Dad Kakar had succeeded in bringing back 40 artifacts from New Jersey, US, in 2007 that were smuggled out of Pakistan.
“There are more than 600 plus Buddhist sites in Pakistan. It becomes difficult to pin point where and when the items were illegally excavated and smuggled out,” he explained to Dawn. However, the absence of a treaty could be blamed on Pakistan officialdom.
Records show that the DOAM had prepared a draft bilateral agreement in June, 2007, in accordance with guideline provided by Cultural Heritage Centre, US Department of State, Washington.
Had the agreement been approved by Cabinet Division, it would have bound Pakistan and the US to return artifacts to their countries of origin if smuggled out illegally (from Pakistan into the US and vice versa).
However, the Cabinet Division returned this draft agreement the same month. It argued that a bilateral agreement would not be needed if Pakistan and US fulfilled their obligations under the Unesco Convention. An expert on international law, Ahmer Bilal Sufi, explained that under the 1973 Rules of Business, the Cabinet Division had the discretion to sign/ratify or not sign/ratify international agreements.
“If the Cabinet Division feels the convention is fulfilling all necessary aspects then it might not feel the need to enter into a bilateral agreement,” the lawyer said. However, he thought it was wrong for Christie’s to go ahead with the auction despite claims by government of Pakistan of ownership of the Gandhara artifacts.
“Conventions provide details how to proceed. Even in the absence of a convention, the auctioneers should have evaluated their general obligations under the customary law since the objects under question are common heritage of mankind,” said the legal expert.
“The force of customary frameworks protected subjects of common heritage of mankind.”
Documents available with Dawn show that the Cabinet Division did request the Ministry of Culture, since devolved, to consult with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Law Division to “re-assess the need for the proposed bilateral MoU (memorandum of understanding) between Pakistan and US”.
The culture ministry did not make any progress till its devolution on April 5, 2011. Nonetheless, the US Department of State offered to reopen the investigation into the case once its two requirements – date and location from which the statues were stolen and a bilateral agreement – were fulfilled.