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Rare glazed tiles to be returned to Uzbekistan following work by the British Museum and Border Force
The tiles came from Transoxiana, a region centred in present-day Uzbekistan. There are many specialists of this region and its inscribed tiled monuments, so the British Museum immediately sought advice from colleagues in as many as seven countries around the world. Within a week, despite the Covid-19 imposed lockdown conditions affecting everyone concerned, the Museum was able to submit a report to Border Force.

LONDON.- The British Museum is committed to contributing to the preservation of cultural heritage in the UK and globally, partnering with law enforcement agencies to identify illicitly trafficked antiquities. Objects seized in this way are brought to the British Museum for identification and cataloguing. The Museum then liaises with colleagues in the national museums of the countries concerned to arrange the return of these objects.

A recent case concerns a consignment of glazed tiles detained at Heathrow airport. On 24 January 2020 a passenger arriving on a flight from Dubai was detained on entry at the airport and found to be in possession of six large epigraphic glazed tiles. They were declared on accompanying paperwork to be replicas ‘made to look old’, intended for sale and accompanied by a receipt describing them as ‘six decrition [decoration] tiles’ purchased in Sharjah the previous day for 315 DH (the equivalent of about £70). They were queried and detained by a Border Force officer on the grounds that their age required verification.

The British Museum was contacted on 9th May and advised that the tiles came from Transoxiana, a region centred in present-day Uzbekistan, but which included parts of neighbouring Tajikistan, southern Kyrgyzstan and southwest Kazakhstan. There are many specialists of this region and its inscribed tiled monuments, so the British Museum immediately sought advice from colleagues in as many as seven countries around the world. Within a week, despite the Covid-19 imposed lockdown conditions affecting everyone concerned, the Museum was able to submit a report to Border Force.

The importer of these tiles failed to make a claim on them, they were forfeited and handed over to the British Museum for repatriation. They are being safely stored until international travel arrangements permit safe packing and return of the tiles to the Republic of Uzbekistan.

The Ministry of Culture in Uzbekistan has kindly agreed that the Museum can display the tiles for a short period, and they will go on display in Gallery 53 in December 2020. The British Museum has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the Art and Culture Development Foundation under the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Uzbekistan to continue to collaborate in the identification and advice on stolen or trafficked items of Uzbek origin.

The combination of three colours of glaze – white, turquoise and cobalt blue – on these tiles dates them to between the end of the 13th and about the mid-14th centuries. They belong to a period which began with the establishment of a khanate under Chagatai Khan, second son of Chinggis (more commonly called Genghis) Khan, in c. 1227 and lasting until 1363. All of the tiles are inscribed, with Qur'anic inscriptions, but only one is complete.

Uzbek specialists believe that at least some of the tiles come from the Shah-i Zinda memorial complex near Samarkand. In 1996 and early 2000, excavations and restoration work were carried out at the site, but a number of the glazed artefacts found in the excavations remain unaccounted for. Shah-i Zinda flourished in the 11th–12th and 14th–15th centuries when the neighbouring city of Samarkand was at its peak. In 1220 Samarkand was destroyed by the Mongols but, after a period of desertion and ruin, a second group of mausolea was founded, and the tiles date from this phase.

Further additions and changes continued to be made to this complex during the 14th and 15th centuries when Samarkand was the capital of the Timurid empire, but it began to fall into disrepair once Bukhara replaced Samarkand as the centre of power and patronage in the region. Samarkand was inscribed on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Monuments in 2001 and is now a very popular destination for tourists.

Dr Hartwig Fischer, Director, The British Museum, said: “The identification of illicitly traded cultural objects is a very important part of the Museum's work. Over the past decade we have helped to return more than 2,500 objects to Iraq, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and elsewhere. We work in partnership with law enforcement agencies, museum colleagues, academics and embassy personnel to limit this harmful trade and ensure the preservation of cultural heritage".

His Excellency Mr Said Rustamov, Ambassador of Uzbekistan, said: “On behalf of the Government of the Republic of Uzbekistan, I would like to express sincere gratitude to the British Museum for assistance in identification and repatriation of these ancient glazed calligraphic tiles to Uzbekistan. We also thank the UK Border Force for detaining illegally smuggled artefacts, which are invaluable part of Uzbekistan’s cultural heritage. The return of antiquities is another evidence of a strengthening Uzbek-British relations and our long-standing and excellent cooperation with the British Museum. I would like to remind that in 2017 the British Museum helped in identification and successful repatriation of another stolen tile from Chashma-Ayub Mausoleum in Bukhara. The Ministry of Culture and other relevant government bodies of Uzbekistan will further strengthen the collaboration with the British Museum and UK law enforcement agencies in combatting the illicit trade in antiquities. Our close cooperation will send a strong signal to antiquity traffickers”.

Border Force Heathrow Deputy Director Mustafa Khan said: “These detections are testament to the skill and expertise of Border Force officers, who are trained to spot the signs of smuggling in whatever form. On this occasion it was extremely rare artefacts, where the passenger attempted to deceive officers into believing they were low value replicas. Fortunately, they did not succeed, and our links with the British Museum helped us establish that these items had significant cultural value.”

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