The terracotta heads are believed to have been stolen by the Taliban (Photo: Met Police)
An “ancient and precious” collection of terracotta Buddha heads, believed to have been stolen by the Taliban and transported to the UK, are to be returned to Afghanistan 17 years after their discovery at Heathrow Airport.
A Buddha sculpture and nine heads will be sent back to their “rightful home”, the National Museum of Afghanistan, following a “long and complex” investigation that was carried out by the Metropolitan Police’s art and antiques unit.
In September 2002, customs officers intercepted two wooden crates at Heathrow Airport that had been flown over on a flight from Peshawar, Pakistan. Officials suspected the crates contained drugs but instead stuffed inside were the Buddha sculpture and nine heads.
Detectives established that the artefacts, which date back to between the fourth and sixth Century, had been sent on consignment to a business based in London. That firm was unaware as to the nature of the items, and, as there were no other suspects in the UK, the case was closed.
Afghanistan subsequently claimed the pieces but the Met said it was not possible to return the illegally looted items due to conflict in the country.
They were sent to the British Museum last year for analysis and were displayed there for a short time.
The items will now be returned to the National Museum of Afghanistan after being displayed for a short time at the British Museum (Photo: Met Police)
DC Sophie Hayes from the Met’s art and antiques unit, said: “This has been a very long and complex case but I am delighted that after 17 years these ancient and precious items are finally being returned to Afghanistan.”
She added: “The handover takes place during the at and antiques unit’s 50th year and it is fitting that, whilst celebrating our anniversary, we were also able to attend the event at the British Museum to celebrate Afghanistan’s cultural heritage returning to its rightful home.”
St John Simpson, senior curator and archaeologist in the department of the Middle East in the British Museum, has said the heads would likely have had bodies previously, and would have been displayed on the walls of Buddhist monasteries in the ancient kingdom of Gandhāra, which is now northwestern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan, about 1,500 years ago.
“These are quite outstanding,” Dr Simpson previously told The Guardian.
“We’ve returned thousands of objects to Kabul over the years but this is the first time we’ve been able to work on Buddhist pieces.
“The return of any object which has been illegally trafficked is hugely important symbolically. But these pieces will form one of the largest groups of Buddhist art to be returned [to the National Museum of Afghanistan].”