The 2nd-century Gandharan Buddha thought to have been looted from the Kabul national museum. Photograph: British Museum
An anonymous art dealer passionate about Afghan heritage has teamed up with the British Museum in an effort to buy and repatriate a spectacular antiquity believed to have been looted from the Afghan national museum in Kabul during the 1990s.
The British dealer, who said he had a "very strong emotional attachment" to Afghanistan, resolved to buy the 2nd-century Gandharan Buddha after he recognised it in a photograph sent by a colleague in Japan. The sculpture, which had disappeared in the bloody civil war, had been bought by a Japanese collector.
The British dealer, who is insisting on anonymity but spoke to the Observer about his determination to save the Buddha, said: "I begged him to give it back. He didn't care. In Japan, even if the object is stolen, you can't prosecute. So I decided to buy it."
The problem was that in Britain, purchasing stolen goods is a criminal offence, but the dealer was undeterred. He informed only the director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, and a curator, St John Simpson, of his plan.
"It was a big risk, but I had the [museum's] blessing," he said. "I thought that could have helped, although Customs officers don't believe in 'good faith' and there could have been serious trouble. I was doing something very moral, but illegal."
He has an enduring passion for Afghanistan, having travelled extensively there in the 1970s: "I saw the piece in Kabul then. I remember perfectly where it stood. This was my homage to their civilisation and their suffering."
Simpson, curator for ancient Iran and Arabia, said: "We had to seek legal advice. But the consensus was that, if this was the only way in which this piece could be returned, that's what we had to do. The clear public benefit outweighed the grey area."
With the museum's blessing, the dealer used his own money to persuade the Japanese collector to sell the 1.2 metre-high Buddha. Negotiations lasted a year.
Simpson described the rescue as "terribly appropriate", coming as it did on the 10th anniversary of the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan: "They're gone forever. But one very important piece can be returned. This is a very important and stunningly beautiful piece."
Omara Khan Massoudi, director of the National Museum of Afghanistan, described it as "one of our most treasured objects". One source put the sculpture's value at £600,000, but the British Museum said it is "without value, given its provenance".
The Buddha, which is shown performing a miracle with flames rising from his shoulders and water pouring from his feet, will be displayed in the British Museum's Enlightenment Gallery from Wednesday, before it is returned to Kabul after the close of "Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World". The show has proved so popular that it has been extended until 17 July.
About 75% of the Kabul museum's antiquities have been destroyed or looted. They reflected the rich heritage of a land that was once a crossroads of eastern and western ancient civilisations.
Source: The Guardian, 29 May 2011