British Museum returns rare artefact to Afghanistan

A rare 17th century tinned copper bowl has been returned to the Embassy of Afghanistan in London by the British Museum, nearly 25 years after it was thought to be lost for good.


The Safavid bowl was lost during the civil war in the 1990s and was purchased “in good faith in December 1994 from an Afghan antiques dealer in Jeddah by Patrick and Paola von Aulock. After 20 years of safeguarding the artefact, they eventually decided to sell it and took it into Christie’s for a valuation.

Sara Plumbly, Specialist and Head of Christie’s Islamic Art department, recognised the bowl and gave the British Museum permission to examine it. The provenance of the bowl was confirmed by the museum and negotiations to return the bowl to Afghanistan began.

The bowl dates to the Safavid period (1501–1722), and includes a cartouche which identifies the bowls previous owner: Mohammad Abū Tāleb. It is decorated by three medallions which depict scenes from a Persian tragedy Khosrow and Shirin composed by the poet Nizami Ganjavi. Another similar piece is currently owned by the Musée de l’Homme in Paris, and some have speculated that both pieces came from the same workshop in the city of Herat.

The majority of the Islamic metalware collection of the National Museum of Afghanistan was looted and lost in a fire following a rocket strike on the museum in November 1995, making the return of the bowl even more significant. The National Museum of Afghanistan has confirmed that they will be putting the bowl on display as soon as possible.

Sara Plumbly said “Christie’s are delighted to have played a role in facilitating the return of this work to the Kabul museum and we would like to extend our thanks to the previous owners Mr and Mrs von Aulock for their collaboration.”

She continues to say “this is a good example of where research, cooperation and a wish to facilitate the right solution has succeeded,” adding that “Christie’s maintains its on-going commitment in this area and takes matters of cultural property very seriously”.

St John Simpson, Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Middle East, British Museum said that “this is another important step in the rebuilding of the National Museum of Afghanistan and we are delighted to have played a small part in the return of this important object to Kabul”.  

Fahim Rahimi, Director of the National Museum of Afghanistan said “I hope returning this bowl will be a start for more artefacts to be recovered, not only those looted from museums as well those looted from archaeological sites in Afghanistan. I ask those collectors who keep artefacts from Afghanistan to help us return it back and encourage the auction houses to always check their collections for looted objects from Afghanistan.”       


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