Monday, November 30, 2009

Schøyen Collection's looted, smuggled Buddhist manuscripts

Following on from the first "background note" on the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Schøyen Collection, this is the second note, on the Afghan Buddhist manuscripts in Martin Schøyen's collection.(1)

To be very clear from the very beginning, I'm not accusing Schøyen of trying to collect illicit antiquities; I'm just trying to trace the history of the artefacts' collection, in order to show how looted and smuggled antiquities enter collections, and how those collections cause looting and smuggling.

The British Library's smuggled antiquities

In 1994, the British Library (BL) 'set a legitimizing example' by buying 60 manuscript fragments, 5 pots and 26 pot sherds, (probably looted and) 'believed to have been smuggled out of Afghanistan', and thus became 'a[t] least partly responsible' for the 'buoyant market in smuggled manuscripts' (Brodie, 2005).

The Schøyen Collection's legally acquired illicit antiquities

Subsequently (and consequently), the Schøyen Collection (n.d.) bought 'about 1500 Buddhist manuscripts from most Asian countries', and it made it very clear that
The right of title of the Schøyen Collection in law is unquestioned. Every item was acquired legally from London dealers before the accession of the UK, Norway or Afghanistan to the 1970 UNESCO Convention or the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention [hyperlinks added].
That seems to imply that the antiquities would not have been acquired legally if they had been acquired after any of those countries' accession to either of those conventions. (Otherwise, why explain that the artefacts were acquired before accession?)

Both of those conventions tried to prevent illicit import, export and transfer of ownership, and to restitute (return) stolen cultural property, and thereby to end the theft and looting of cultural property. Thus, the Schøyen Collection's own words imply that its Buddhist manuscripts were illegally excavated, exported and/or traded.

The Schøyen Collection (n.d.) said its artefacts had been 'found'; and religious history Prof. Jens Erland Braarvig (2000: xiii), who published the Schøyen Collection's Buddhist manuscripts, also used the term 'found'.

However, Prof. Braarvig (2002: xiii) also stated that,
Amid the political and military turmoil in this region, not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan and India, new finds continue to be made and fresh manuscripts continue to arrive in the West....

From a scientific point of view the fact that the exact find-spots of these items are unknown and that proper excavations have not been carried out is deplorable, since the artifacts are shorn of context....

This entire process raises complex economic and political issues, to say nothing of its moral dimensions.... [S]ome have questioned his [Schøyen's] ownership on the grounds that the states in which the materials were originally found may have a moral if not a legal claim on such private collections as this one.
Braarvig did not answer those questions.

Moreover, Braarvig (2002: xiii) did not say (explicitly) that 'finds continue to be made' by looting, and 'continue to arrive in the West' by smuggling from the East.

Frequently, illicit antiquities are '"laundered" by means of a good faith purchase' (Brodie, Doole and Watson, 2000: 33), somewhere where buying stolen property in "good faith" gives the buyer legal ownership.

For example, "good faith purchasing" antiquities laundering used to happen in London, until 2002. Most of Schøyen's purchases were 'acquired in London between 1997 and 2000' (Schøyen Collection, n.d.), and all by 2001 (Lundén, 2005).

The Schøyen Collection continues to claim that its Buddhist manuscripts were 'rescue[d]' 'refugee items' from Taliban 'destruction'; it also claims that, as soon as it found out that 'some' artefacts items 'might' have been 'illegally exported' from Pakistan, it 'immediately returned these items'.

Yet in 2004, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, NRK (Norsk Rikskringkasting), broadcast a documentary about Schøyen, the Manuscript Collector [Skriftsamleren]. Archaeologist Staffan Lundén paraphrased NRK's conclusions thus:
The manuscripts were not saved from the Taliban in a rescue operation.... They had been bought on the art market, sometimes directly from smugglers. Some of the material was not even from Afghanistan.

These facts had been known to Schøyen and a number of scholars for years, but they had kept the information to themselves.(2)
It was only when NRK 'started to make inquiries' that Schøyen 'offered to return' artefacts stolen from Kabul Museum, and only when the Pakistani ambassador 'demanded the return' that Schøyen 'agreed to repatriate' (not merely "some" but 200-300 pieces of) looted Pakistani cultural heritage.

Collecting illicit antiquities causes looting and smuggling

Any respite from abject poverty is an incentive for peasants to loot, and ultimately an exploitation of their poverty that drives them to destroy their own cultural heritage; and the tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of pounds of profit in illicit antiquities trading explains everyone else's enthusiastic involvement.
  1. Archaeology Profs. Atle Omland and Christopher Prescott (2005) documented the public debate about the Buddhist Manuscripts from Afghanistan in the Schøyen Collection. Omland and Prescott also noted restitution claims of Egypt, Ethiopia and Iraq against the Schøyen Collection, British Museum, British Library, and others.
  2. I inserted a paragraph break to make the quotation easy to read in a blog post; but the text is exactly the same.

Braarvig, J E, (Ed.). 2000: Buddhist manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection, vol. I. Oslo: Hermes.

Braarvig, J E, (Ed.). 2002: Buddhist manuscripts in the Schøyen Collection, vol. II. Oslo: Hermes.

Brodie, N. 2005: "The circumstances and consequences of the British Library's 1994 acquisition of some Kharosthi manuscript fragments". Culture Without Context, Number 17. Available at:

Brodie, N, Doole, J and Watson, P. 2000: Stealing history: The illicit trade in cultural material. Cambridge: the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research. Available at:

Lundén, S. 2005: "TV review: NRK (Norway), Skriftsamleren [The Manuscript Collector]". Culture Without Context, Number 16. Available at:

Omland, A and Prescott, C. 2005: "Buddhist manuscripts from Afghanistan in the Schøyen Collection". Universitetet i Oslo. Available at:

Schøyen Collection, the. N.d.: "Buddhism: Introduction". The Schøyen Collection. Available at:

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation). 1970: Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Paris: United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Available at:

UNIDROIT (Institut International pour l'Unification du Droit Privé [International Institute for the Unification of Private Law]). 1995: Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. Rome: Institut International pour l'Unification du Droit Privé. Available at:

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