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The nine clay heads that are returning to Afghanistan.

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The nine clay heads and a torso, believed to have been smuggled out of Peshawar, Pakistan, after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, arrived in the UK in 2002.

In September of that year, border control at Heathrow airport found the Gandhara sculptures concealed in fruit crates and destined for the black market.

Detectives established that the objects had been sent on consignment to a business based in London, which was unaware of the contents, and the case was closed.

Following the closure of an investigation the Met gave the collection to the British Museum for identification.

The sculptures had been beheaded, probably during the Taliban’ iconoclastic phase of 2001 when figural representations were prohibited.

It is believed they originated from Buddhist monasteries as they are similar to excavated pieces from Haḍḍa near Jalalabad in east central Afghanistan.

Afghanistan claimed the pieces but due to the ongoing conflict they were not able to be returned immediately. The pieces were on display in the British Museum following an agreement with the National Museum of Afghanistan.

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A view of the nine clay heads on display.

Last week the collection was finally returned to the museum in Afghanistan after 17 years in the UK.

DC Sophie Hayes from the Met’s Art and Antiques Unit, said: “This has been a very long and complex case but I am delighted that after 17 years, these ancient and precious items are finally being returned.

“The handover takes place during the Art and Antiques Unit’s 50th year and it is fitting that, while celebrating our anniversary, we were also able to attend the event at the British Museum to celebrate Afghanistan’s cultural heritage returning to its rightful home.”

The collection was conserved while in the UK with the help of donations, including from dealer John Eskenazi.