17th-century Flemish paintings will be on show at Mumbai from November 28. The author looks at how these masterpieces came to India.

We were in a sprawling, nondescript warehouse on the outskirts of Antwerp, waiting with muted excitement, as art historian Dr. Katharina Van Cauteren drew aside an enormous steel shutter to reveal a 17th century masterpiece — a self-portrait by Peter Paul Rubens. We watched in awed silence as more paintings by legendary artists were shown –– Van Dyck, Frans Snijders. Experts — restorers, registrars, conservation managers, archivists, image management consultants, and art historians — were all working around these fabulous art objects.

There is a reason why these art objects are not in the museum where they belong. Antwerp City in Belgium is home to the famous Royal Museum of Fine Arts or the KMSKA, which has been closed for renovation since 2011. It is scheduled to reopen only in the spring of 2018. Its collections have been stored in select venues in and around Antwerp. The Registrar, Veerle De Meester, said: “On the one hand, collection, preservation and management require a correct and delicate approach; on the other, they often ask for great flexibility too.”

The good news is that the privilege of viewing several such priceless works will soon be available to Indians. Given the long and fruitful relations between India and Belgium, it was decided to use the opportunity — of these works having been moved out of the museum — to bring select ones to India. In one of the most important art events in India in recent times, an exhibition titled Flemish Masterpieces from Antwerp will be held at Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, from November 28, 2013 to February 9, 2014.

It will showcase 28 exclusive paintings from the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, and 25 engravings of the print room of the Plantin-Moretus Museum, a UNESCO World Heritage site, also in Antwerp. These will include priceless works by Rubens, Van Dyck, Jordaens, Jan Brueghel the Elder, and other artists; all exclusive works from 17th century Belgium, a glorious period in Europe’s art history.

Experts will be around to explain various features of these masterpieces. There will be guidebooks and other reading material available for more details. Besides Indians, tourists to India during this period are also likely to visit the exhibition.

The exhibition will be officially inaugurated by Her Royal Highness, Princess Astrid of Belgium, on November 27. Also present will be Kris Peeters, Minister-President, Flanders, Belgium; Didier Reynders, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and European Affairs; and Marc Van Peel, President, Antwerp Port Authority. This will be on the occasion of the official visit of the Belgian delegation to India from November 23 to 29.

This exhibition is being brought to India through the concerted efforts of the City of Antwerp, Antwerp Port Authority, and Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, with the support of the Flemish Government and Kingdom of Belgium.

Marc Van Peel says: “We are very proud of the great tradition of Flemish art and are happy to bring them to India. Art is a great bridge between countries and cultures. I love Indian art and have both a Ganesha and a Nataraja at home.”

This whole exhibition has taken one and a half years of meticulous planning and the logistics involved — packing of objects, transport across continents, security aspects and countless other details — have made this a task of great magnitude, entailing cooperation among many organisations and experts.

Asked about the challenges involved, Raj Khalid, India Representative of the Antwerp Port Authority, said, “This is one of the most delicate operations we have undertaken. Getting permission to send the paintings to India, ensuring that these will be well received and finding an appropriate place to exhibit them were the initial challenges. Once these were resolved, we had to satisfy the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, about the suitability of the location. Raising sponsorship, insuring the works, and meeting numerous CSMVS requirements were other tasks. It has also been a huge learning process.”