US returns 33 Looted Cultural Artifacts to Afghanistan

The Manhattan District Attorney announced on Monday that 33 cultural artifacts, worth some US$1.8 million, have been returned to Afghanistan after authorities found them among more than 2,500 looted antiquities held in the collection of notorious New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor.

The looting of cultural property from active war zones, like Afghanistan, is considered a war crime. (Source: Manhattan DA)The looting of cultural property from active war zones, like Afghanistan, is considered a war crime. (Source: Manhattan DA)“Crimes of culture involving looted and stolen religious relics, such as the nearly two dozen Buddhist statues being repatriated today to the people of Afghanistan, not only tear at the societal fabric of nations but also deprive millions of believers worldwide of the earliest sacred symbols of their faith,” said District Attorney Cy Vance at the repatriation ceremony attended by the Afghan ambassador to the U.S. 

In the past few months, the Manhattan DA has repatriated 338 items from Kapoors collection to their countries of origin which include India, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka. 

Kapoor, who has been languishing in prison in Chennai, India, since his arrest in 2012, has been charged with running a massive smuggling ring that specialized in religious artifacts from South and Central Asia.  

The Illegal antiquities trade is a multi-billion dollar global industry according to a 2018 report by Standard Charter Bank, and it’s beneficiaries are not just high society art aficionados like Kapoor and his Manhattan clients, but often the trade is a major funding source for criminal and militant groups on the supply side.

“You cannot look at it separately from combating trafficking in drugs and weapons. We know that the same groups are engaged, because it generates big money,” said Catherine de Bolle, Executive Director of Europol after a major crackdown on the illegal antiquities trade last May.

The looting of cultural property from active war zones, like Afghanistan, is considered a war crime under the 1954 Hague Convention.

“Artifacts of historical or cultural significance allow the public to experience a nation’s heritage and these items shouldn’t be offered as souvenirs for sale to the highest bidder,” said Peter C. Fitzhugh, Special Agent in charge of U.S Homeland Security Investigations New York, which oversees the DA’s anti-antiquities trafficking unit. 

“The preservation of Afghanistan’s heritage and history is paving the path for civilization and society to grow,” said Afghan Ambassador Roya Rahmani upon receiving the artifacts. “These recovered works are irreplaceable pieces of Afghanistan’s diverse culture and rich history. It is my greatest honor to help facilitate their return home.”