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Asian Art Commission votes to return illegally removed marble panel to Afghanistan

A centuries-old marble panel, illegally removed from an ancient royal city in Afghanistan after the Soviet Union’s occupation of that country and currently held by San Francisco’s Asian Art Musem, took the first step in a long journey home Wednesday. It will likely be quite some time, however, before it goes any further.

During a joint session of the Asian Art Museum Commission and Foundation, the Asian Art Commission voted unanimously in favor of a resolution to remove the intricately carved architectural panel—originally unearthed at the archeological site of a royal palace in Ghazni—from the city’s art collection. However, the museum plans to hold onto the artifact until the United States recognizes Afghanistan’s government.

America does not currently recognize the Taliban—which quickly took control of the Central Asian country in August at the conclusion of 20 years of U.S. military occupation—as the legitimate government of Afghanistan.

“The consulates of Afghanistan are not functioning here in the United States. Until such time as they do, we will hold the objects for them, but with clear recognition of their ownership,” said Rob Mintz, deputy director of art and programs at the Asian Art Museum, as part of a presentation by the commission’s Acquisitions Committee explaining the proposed “deaccession” or removal process of the artwork from the city’s art collection. 

The marble panel, currently on display on the third floor of the museum, will bear a label designating it as the property of the people of Afghanistan,” said Mintz. “Eventually it will return.” 

Mintz also noted that the museum is in communication with Afghanistan’s national museum in Kabul and that its director is “supportive” of the “deaccession of the object and retention of the object.”

The panel originally came into the Asian Art Museum’s holdings as a gift in 1987, according to Mintz. A spokesperson for the museum told the New York Times last year that at the time of the acquisition the museum assumed that the piece had left Afghanistan legally, but would not make the same presumptions today and was “systemically reviewing” objects with unclear provenance in its collection.  

The move for deaccession of the panel comes with more clarity of its provenance, or pathway of ownership, and its legal implications. 

“We know that this panel was documented by an Italian archeological research team as being in the city of Ghazni at a time that would preclude legal export from Afghanistan, so according to Afghan law, it should not have left the country,” said Mintz during the presentation. It did leave the country following the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.” 

The decision comes as repatriation, or the return of stolen or looted cultural items to objects’ homeland, has come prominently to the forefront of art world conversations over the last few decades