U.S. museum offers to buy Afghan art for posterity

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art on Thursday begged the Taliban not to smash all the statues from Afghanistan's rich cultural past and said the museum would purchase the artifacts rather than see them destroyed.

"We are making this offer. Let us come at our own cost and let us remove what we are able to remove," said Phillippe De Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum, one of the world's premier repositories of art and artifacts.

"Let us remove them so that they are in the context of an art museum, where they are cultural objects, works of art and not cult images," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"Better that than having them destroyed."

De Montebello was adding his voice to the chorus of international appeals to the radical ruling Taliban movement that has begun smashing the statues it regards as un-Islamic.

"All statues will be destroyed," Taliban Information and Culture Minister Mullah Qudratullah Jamal told reporters on Thursday in the capital Kabul. "Whatever means of destruction are needed to demolish the statues will be used.

"The work began early during the day. All of the statues are to be smashed. This also covers the idols in Bamiyan," he said. Bamiyan is the site of two monumental statues of the Buddha, hewn from a solid cliff at around the fourth and fifth centuries A.D., that are Afghanistan's most famous relics.

De Montebello said he had not directly contacted the Taliban, which on Thursday rejected a last-minute U.N. appeal when its Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil told an envoy the movement would complete the destruction of the statues.

The Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news service cited Jamal as saying statues had been destroyed at museums in Kabul, the southern city of Ghazni, the western city of Herat and at Farm Hadda near the main eastern town of Jalalabad.


Russia, Germany, India and Pakistan condemned the destruction and appealed to the Taliban to think again.

While the statues at Bamiyan probably could not be saved if the Taliban went ahead with their plan, Montebello said that the museum would use its own financial resources to purchase and remove smaller, life-size statues.

"We can do nothing about what is hewn in the rock," he said. De Montebello said he had not yet spoken to other museums about his offer, but he was sure that those who could afford it would join. "I would suspect that the Louvre, the British Museum would, given half a chance by the Taliban," he said.

"I think they would all say yes."

The New York-based Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), which represents 175 directors of major art museums in the United States, Canada and Mexico, said it deplored the Taliban's decision.

"The AAMD considers this an assault on the cultural and historical achievements of world civilization and humanity," it said in a statement.

The statement urged the Taliban to stop, but did not address De Montebello's offer. The AAMD was not available to comment further.

A spokesman for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington declined comment.

International alarm was first sparked on Monday, when Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar ordered the smashing of all statues, including the two famous Buddhas that soar 38 metres (125 feet) and 53 metres (174 feet) above Bamiyan.

The United Nations cultural agency UNESCO denounced the Taliban for smashing the priceless statues and called on Muslim nations to try to halt the destruction, which has inflicted new damage to the Taliban's already poor ties with most countries.

Heavily criticized for its restrictions on women and for its public executions, the Taliban is recognized by only three states: Pakistan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.