A Qatari research group said it has stopped the illegal sale of manuscripts at major international auction houses.
As a joint effort among historians at the Himaya project and the Qatar National Library, the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) stopped the illegal trafficking of manuscripts in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, according to a report in the Art Newspaper. One of those manuscripts had reportedly been headed to sale at Sotheby’s before the group intervened.
Over the past couple years, the Himaya network has worked with Interpol, the World Customs Organization, and a team based at the National Library in Doha to identify several manuscripts that experts said were stolen between 2016 through 2019.
“In 2020 we discovered via our international team of experts that some important Qur’anic manuscripts from Kabul were for sale in Paris, London, Amsterdam and Iran,” Stephane Ipert, the National Library’s director of special collections, told the Art Newspaper. “Our attention was drawn by a nice manuscript, a rare and beautiful Qur’an, on sale at Sotheby’s London, described as ‘A magnificent and highly rare, illuminated Qur’an juz’.”
Identified by preeminent scholar of Persian manuscripts Francis Richard, the Quran was slated to be part of an auction at Sotheby’s last year. Richard, who had previously catalogued the manuscript at the National Archive of Afghanistan in Kabul in 2016, alerted Ipert to the sale.
The organization is currently trying to obtain the restitution of the manuscript in question.
The alleged theft was never declared by the National Archive, further complicating the volume’s return. Additionally, the number of stolen manuscripts from the collection, which includes more than 6,000 Timurid-era Qurans, is unknown.
Even though Sotheby’s removed the Quran from the sale, the team said it has discovered eight additional stolen manuscripts among other major auction houses in the last year alone.
“This lot was withdrawn from the sale last October immediately once we became aware of the possibility that the manuscript should not have been in legitimate circulation,” a Sotheby’s spokesperson said in a statement. “On our own examination of the manuscript and the provenance we were provided with, there were no signs that could have alerted us to a link with the National Archive in Kabul. We have of course been fully assisting the authorities with any enquiries regarding this matter.”
Earlier this year, in June and July, Ipert met with Taliban officials to discuss the protection of these precious manuscripts, which has lead to the development of a new online program to train law enforcement officials on the trafficking of cultural goods. It is slated to begin in December with the U.S. charity Arch International. Arch and the National Library are also developing a training program for interns at the National Archive in Kabul.
Last month, the National Library hosted an international meeting of experts to discuss strategies for protecting cultural heritage objects in such places as Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq. It plans to collaborate next with the Athar Project (Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research) to oversee the illegal trafficking of manuscripts across social media platforms.
Ipert said of the efforts, “Whatever the political situation is, we still need to save the heritage.”
Update, 10/14/22, 9:34 a.m.: This post has been updated to include a statement from Sotheby’s on the removal of the stolen Quran from its London sale last year.