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Looted art? MKG returns 12th-century marble panel to Afghanistan
Marble panel from the Royal Palace of Mas’ud III in Ghazni, view 2, photo: © MKG/Joachim Hiltmann.

HAMBURG.- On the 8th of October, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg officially returns a marble dado panel to the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Mr. Abdul Jabar Ariyaee, Chargé d’Affaires at the Afghan Embassy in Berlin, came to Hamburg to receive the panel from the museum. MKG is one of the first German museums to return a work of art to Afghanistan. Beyond investigating Nazi art looting and the issue of colonial collections, the museum has been increasingly turning its attention to more recent acquisitions as well. The restitution of the panel is the result of research carried out on its provenance and represents yet a further example of the responsibility borne by museums and the international art trade for how objects from illicit excavations are handled. The marble dado panel once belonged to a 78-part frieze dating to the twelfth century that adorned the inner courtyard of the Royal Palace of Sultan Mas’ud III in the town of Ghazni, Afghanistan. In the late 1970s, it was stolen from Ghazni’s Rawza Museum of Islamic Art. Now, after years of research, assisted by scholars from the University of Hamburg and the Sapienza Universitá di Roma, as well as close cooperation between German and Afghan authorities, the panel can finally be handed back to its rightful owners. For the time being it will be kept in the Afghan National Museum in Kabul. MKG reached out to the director, Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, to help resolve the issue of the panel. Since November 2018, the MKG is displaying the marble panel in its permanent exhibition Looted Art? Provenance Research on the Collections of the MKG: The panel is presented already half-packed in a transport box set, ready to be returned. In volume 4 of its “Looted Art?” series, the MKG summarizes the research conducted on the history of the panel’s loss and acquisition.

MKG originally purchased the marble panel in good faith at a Paris auction in 2013. The provenance was not a cause of concern at first, but upon closer study it turned out that the object had in fact been stolen from the Rawza Museum of Islamic Art in Ghazni. It was possible to trace the dado panel to excavations carried out by archeologists from Afghanistan and Italy between 1957 and 1966. The archeological finds were handed over at the time to the Rawza Museum, where they were documented as new accessions. The later destabilization of Afghanistan in 1978 and the invasion by the Soviet Army in 1979 led to the museum’s collections being transported off site for safekeeping. During this relocation, the panel now in the possession of MKG was apparently stolen or moved elsewhere, and showed up on the Paris art market in the early 1990s. Many international museums have objects from Afghanistan that come from the same excavations in Ghazni.

Dr. Carsten Brosda, Senator for Culture and Media, Hamburg: “For far too long, our eyes have been closed to the true provenance of cultural goods. On a variety of levels, we are therefore currently tackling the important task of investigating the origins of the objects in our collections and, if necessary, arranging for their restitution. One result of this crucial change of consciousness and the intensive provenance research being done at many museums is that the historic marble panel acquired by MKG can now be returned to Afghanistan. I thank MKG for taking a critical look at its own collection. With the restitution to Afghanistan, the people living there will again have access to this object, which is part of their cultural heritage.”

Prof. Tulga Beyerle, Director of MKG: “I consider the fact that a museum, in this case the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, is publicly acknowledging its mistakes to be an important step. My predecessor, Dr. Sabine Schulze, has thus set a new standard in dealing with looted art. For it is not only a matter of careful provenance research and the potential restitution of art objects that have long been in the museum’s holdings, but also a question of being willing to rectify errors made in recent acquisitions as well.”

Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, Director of the Afghan National Museum in Kabul: “Thousands of movable artifacts have been stolen from both Ghazni and the National Museum of Afghanistan, in particular the white marble panels from the palace of Mas’ud III. We are looking forward to having the dado panel from Hamburg back in our collection soon, and I would like to express my gratitude to MKG for supporting its return. At the same time, I appeal to other museums and private collections to help us retrieve other art objects stolen from Afghanistan.”

MKG has been working on the restitution of the panel since 2014, assisted by Germany’s cultural property authority (Kulturgutschutz Deutschland) and the German Foreign Office. In the summer of 2018, an initial meeting took place between the museum, representatives from the Afghan Embassy in Berlin, and the German authorities. MKG is now the first German museum to return an object to Afghanistan. Back in 2006, the Musée Guimet in Paris already restored pieces to the Afghan National Museum. And in July 2019, the British Museum announced that it would give back Buddha sculptures that were presumably introduced into the art trade by the Taliban and confiscated at a London airport in 2002.

Publication: “Looted Art? A Marble Panel from the Afghan Royal Palace in Ghazni in the Collection of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg,” edited by Sabine Schulze and Silke Reuther, with essays by Julio Bendezu-Sarmiento, Claus-Peter Haase, Stefan Heidemann, Frank Hildebrandt, Tobias Mörike, Mohammad Fahim Rahimi, Silke Reuther, and Sabine Schulze, featuring illustrations by Moshtari Hilal, 84 pages, approx. 85 illustrations, ISBN 978-3-923859887, 9.90 EUR

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