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The British Museum is helping to repatriate six medieval glazed tiles from the ancient city of Samarkand in Uzbekistan. Much to the surprise of curators, the tiles were brought into the UK through Heathrow in a suitcase. Having smuggled the pieces of history into the country on a flight from Dubai in January, the unnamed man even forged the paperwork, declaring them as replicas “made to look old”.
He produced a receipt claiming they had been bought for £70.
Yet in reality the tiles are worth many tens of thousands of pounds, and among some of the most culturally important artefacts to Uzbekistan’s identity.
Dr St John Simpson, a senior curator in the British Museum’s Middle East department, said the tiles were stunning objects.
He told The Guardian: “They’re very attractive, very collectable … you can see why they would attract the criminal element.”
The UK Border Force initially confiscated the items.
They then contacted the museum’s antiquity department to establish whether the tiles were genuine.
The tiles have been dated as coming from between the end of the 13th and mid-14th centuries.
Belonging to a period of great upheaval, the tiles would have existed during the khanate under Chagatai Khan, second son of Genghis Khan, in about 1227 and lasting until 1363.
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The pieces are intricately designed and expertly crafted.
They have three colours of glaze – white, turquoise and cobalt blue.
Each has Quranic inscriptions adorning the outside.
Only one is completely intact.
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Uzbek specialists have since confirmed the tiles come from the Shah-i Zinda memorial complex near Samarkand.
They said large-scale excavations and restoration work was carried out in 1996 and early 2000 from which a number of glazed artefacts remain unaccounted for.
Dr Simpson said Shah-i-Zind was once a region of important tombs and monuments, a modern-day world heritage site and popular tourist destination.
The plan is now to put the tiles on display in the museum in December for up to three months before they are sent back to their homeland.
The case was unique, Dr Simpson said, as most smuggling is done in freight cases, not suitcases.
He explained: “I think the brazen nature of it really illustrates the scale of the crime. They thought they could get away with it. Whether they have in the past is impossible to know but every seizure like this sends a very strong message to the criminals and the mules – crime doesn’t pay in this case.”
Over the past ten years, the British Museum has helped to repatriate over 2,5000 objects to Iraq, Afghanistan Uzbekistan and elsewhere in the Middle East and Asia.
Said Rustamov, Uzbekistan’s ambassador in the UK, expressed gratitude to the museum and the UKBF.
He said: “The ministry of culture and other relevant government bodies of Uzbekistan will further strengthen the collaboration with the British Museum and UK law enforcement agencies in combating the illicit trade in antiquities.
“Our close cooperation will send a strong signal to antiquity traffickers.”
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