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In Houston, a Treasure of Exiled Afghan Art

More than 110 works of Afghan art are on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The show, entitled Afghanistan: a Timeless History, is the largest show of Afghan art in the United States in 35 years. But as David D'Arcy reports, it may be a long time before the exhibits return home to Kabul, Afghanistan's capital.

Afghanistan may have the most unique art heritage in the world. The nation is at the crossroads of many ancient cultures -- China, Persia and India are just a few -- and artisans 2,000 years ago originated a style of sculpture in Afghanistan now called "Greco-Buddhist." The style comes from a mix of two unlikely cultures: Buddhists from China who settled in northern Afghanistan, and the Greek culture brought to the region by the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great.

But none of the works on display in Houston come directly from Afghanistan -- most are part of a Afghan "museum in exile" housed in France. Other key works of art on display were donated by private collectors, who probably purchased them on the black market from looters who continue to plunder ancient archaeological sites.

"Plundering was so widespread during the (Afghan) civil war of the mid-1990s that (exhibit curator) Paul Bucherer set up his 'museum-in-exile' in the hope that Afghanistan might be spared he kind of cultural devastation that struck the former Yugoslavia," D'Arcy reports.

Bucherer expects that most of the 3,000 pieces of art in the collection will eventually be returned to Kabul. For now, they will have to stay on display or in storage in France. The Kabul Museum still has no roof. "Funds promised by the Greek government, in the sprit of Alexander the Great, still haven’t arrived," D'Arcy explains.

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