British Library accused of buying smuggled scrolls

By Martin Bailey, The Art Newspaper, Nov 2, 2004

The Afghan Minister of Culture says Hadda Museum looted

London, UK -- A Norwegian television film is alleging that the British Library in London (BL) has acquired looted Buddhist scrolls. The birch bark scrolls in Kharosthi script, from the 1st century AD, are the oldest surviving Buddhist texts and the earliest known manuscripts in any Indic language.

They have been dubbed ?the Dead Sea Scrolls of Buddhism?.
When the 29 scrolls were acquired by the BL in 1994 it was believed that they had come from the area around Hadda, in Afghanistan, close to the Khyber Pass and the Pakistani border. In the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation film, transmitted a month ago, Afghan Minister of Culture Sayed Raheen points out that the Hadda Museum was looted in 1992. He then suggests that following the looting, the scrolls were ?taken out of the country.?

Film producer David Hebditch revealed that the scrolls had been sold by Robert Senior, a coin dealer who is currently based in Somerset. The purchase price has never been disclosed, but it has been suggested that the texts were purchased and donated to the library by Neil Kreitman, a specialist in Gandharan art and son of the late Hyman Kreitman, chairman of Tesco supermarkets. Mr Hebditch argues that the initial sale to the BL was partly ?an attempt to create a market among private collectors for scrolls??and thereby encourage further looting.

The BL responds that the scrolls were in very poor condition when they were acquired, requiring urgent conservation. A spokesman says that the BL was ?approached by a reputable London dealer for advice on the conservation of scrolls which had been forced into a number of modern pickle jars.? The spokesman added that ?the skilled conservation work undertaken by the BL subsequently has meant that this material has remained available to the international scholarly community.?

In the Norwegian television programme the BL director responsible for Asian collections, Graham Shaw, admitted that the scrolls ? returned to a legitimate claimant, if a claim could be proven.? No formal claim has yet been submitted. Although the BL cannot deaccession manuscripts acquired while it was part of the British Museum, it is permitted to do so with material which arrived after the split in 1972.

Even if the scrolls were discovered in a cave or excavation, then it is likely that their removal and export would still have contravened Afghan legislation (either the 1958 Code for the Protection of Antiquities or the 1980 Law on Cultural Heritage). However, because of civil war, the legal situation might also depend on who was the de facto authority in the Hadda area when the scrolls were discovered and exported.

Under the UK?s Dealing in Cultural Objects Offences Act it would now be an offence in Britain to import items known to have been looted, but this legislation only came into force at the beginning of this year and is not retrospective. Professor Richard Salomon, the key specialist involved in studying and publishing the BL scrolls, still believes that they were found around Hadda, although he doubts that they were ever in the museum. ?My first priority is to find out the truth of the matter, whatever it may be.? he said.

The Norwegian film also deals with the sale of a separate group of ancient Buddhist scrolls which passed through London dealer Sam Fogg to Oslo collector Martin Schøyen.