US returns stolen Buddhist sculpture to Pakistan

NEW YORK - A second-century Buddhist sculpture stolen from an archeological site in Pakistan three decades ago was returned Wednesday at a repatriation ceremony in New York, attended by a senior Pakistani diplomat.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced the return of the carved 440-pound stone artifact, valued at $1.1 million, after busting Tatsuzo Kaku, a 70-year-old Japanese art dealer, in a sting operation last month. Prosecutors say Kaku tried to sell the piece during a popular commercial arts event known as Asia Week New York.

“We were able to have a happy ending,” Vance said. “This sculpture is so much more than a piece of property or commercial property. It’s an ancient piece that speaks to the history and culture of Pakistan that should be celebrated and protected vigorously.”

The Deputy Chief of Mission at the Pakistan Embassy in Washington, Rizwan Saeed Sheikh, who received the artifact, said he was delighted to see it recovered. “We are very grateful,” Sheikh said. “In this very few words, I thank you.”

The artifact, he added, was "an important element of the rich cultural history of Pakistan".

The Kushan period artifact was stolen from an archaeological site in Pakistan's Swat region in 1982, prosecutors said.

The rock tablet, adorned with symbols from ancient religions, depicts “footprints of the Buddha” — symbolic reminders that Buddha once walked the earth.

The precious piece was recovered by Vance’s office as part of an antiquities smuggling sting operation with other agencies, including Homeland Security.

Kaku pleaded guilty to criminal possession of stolen property in exchange for a $5,000 fine and a sentence of time-served and left the country voluntarily. Prosecutors said Kaku had cooperated with on-going investigations.

Kaku said he shipped the 2nd-century Buddhapada from Tokyo to New York to sell it at a gallery, where it was expected to fetch $1.1 million.

He said he knew it had been excavated and removed from the Swat River valley in 1982. He said in court that, while he stood to benefit financially, he also was motivated by a lifelong desire to preserve such works for fear they would fall into disrepair or be destroyed if they remained in Pakistan.

Kaku, who’s 70 years old, was arrested in mid-March after a rival art dealer cooperated with authorities.

Scholars and art historians say there’s little truth to the argument. UNESCO initiated a programme more than a decade ago with funds from the US to preserve images of Buddha and other works found in the region.

During the time the Buddhapada was stolen, there were no major threats to any archaeological sites, said Muhammad Zahir, an assistant professor at Hazara University in Pakistan who works in the Swat valley.

Even when the Taliban was present in 2009, the government of Pakistan had plans to protect or remove ancient Buddhist art from the valley and safely moved museum artifacts during military operations to combat the Taliban, he said.

Zahir said in an email from Pakistan that a far more realistic reason for the looting was the demand in the Western and Southeast Asian markets for Buddhist art from the region.

The repatriated piece is a large stone slab with columns and two large footprints. Within the footprints are symbols, including a swastika, a 5,000-year-old Sanskrit symbol that denotes auspiciousness and was co-opted by Nazi Germany.

Just days before Kaku’s arrest, two ancient Indian statues that had been smuggled out of that country and made their way to New York were seized from an auction house.

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