The paintings were the prized possession of IARI before they were stolen in 2009

Legendary Russian artist Nicholas Roerich could not have imagined that two of his precious paintings would one day become a bone of contention between a Pakistani, who claims matinee idol Devika Rani gifted them to his grandfather Nazir Ahmed Khan, a known actor in the pre-Partition Hindi film industry, and the Indian government in a British court of law.

There are interesting twists and turns in this whole drama. The name of actor Devika Rani, daughter-in-law of Nicholas Roerich, cropped up and was used by Zahid Nazir to bolster his claim that the late actor had gifted Roerich’s two outstanding artistic impressions to his grandfather Nazir Ahmed Khan, who was brother-in-law of filmmaker K. Asif.

Indeed, Nazir Ahmed Khan worked in a number of Indian and Pakistani films. He was one of the first successful heroes in pre-Partition India and later migrated to the then newly formed Islamic country after his studio in Bombay was burnt down during the Partition riots.

Devika Rani was married to the famous Russian painter’s son Svetoslav Roerich and naturally as daughter-in-law of the famous artist she must have inherited his prized possessions – art works.

Stolen

While there is a possibility that she may have gifted the two artistic impressions to actor Nazir Ahmed Khan, the two paintings titled “Himalaya Kanchenjunga” and “Sunset Kashmir” were the prized possessions of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) on Pusa Road before they were stolen in 2009. Subsequently, the work of art landed up at auction house Sotheby’s.

Talking to The Hindu, a former Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) Secretary rubbished the Pakistani’s claim. “We cannot take Nazir’s claim that Roerich’s paintings had been lying at his Lahore house in seriousness because they were our property till they were stolen. Roerich Museum (St. Petersburg) director Krylov had seen the paintings at IARI in 1999 and Roerich Museum New York curator Tepsa had also testified that the paintings were the property of IARI.”

However, the IARI came to know about the disappearance of the two paintings when Sotheby’s sent a letter “either in 2010 or 2011 informing that it had verified from the Roerich Museum of New York that the two paintings indeed belonged to the IARI. But the IARI did not inform the ICAR. When we came to know through informal sources we jumped into action.”

To pursue the matter in all seriousness, a team comprising the CBI, IARI and ICAR went to the United Kingdom to meet lawyers and work out modalities to bring the national heritage back home. “The matter is in the British court even now. We are fighting the case,” says IARI Director H.S. Gupta.

Each of the priceless treasure trove costs over £2 million.

Court directive

In fact, a Delhi court recently asked the U.K. Home Department to allow the CBI to probe the case of Roerich’s paintings being stolen from the IARI and presented to a London auction house by a Pakistani and a British resident.

It came to the IARI’s notice that the two paintings were presented to Sotheby’s for auction by Zahid Nazir, a resident of Pakistan, and his father Rafay Nazir Khan, who lives in London.

After the matter came to the notice of Indian authorities, the attorney of Zahid Nazir and Rafay Nazir Khan wrote to the IARI Director on May 16, 2011, claiming that they were the owners and consignees of the two paintings. And the paintings have been in the family ownership since at least late 1960s or early 1970s and were kept at their family home in Lahore until they were shifted to Sotheby’s in 2010.

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