A case relating to paintings allegedly missing from the Ravi Varma collection housed in the Kerala Department of Museums and Zoos has raised concerns about the safekeeping of precious heritage. It spotlights the glaring inadequacies in the existing legislation meant to ensure the acquisition of the best art objects for government museums and the shortcomings in the methods to mange them. The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, enacted nearly four decades ago at the initiative of the central government, is intended to discourage fraudulent dealings in antiquities and paintings that are more than 100 years old. It enables the state to declare select paintings as national treasures and acquire them. While the public spirit behind the legislation must be appreciated, its failure sufficiently to differentiate paintings from antiquities and its prescription of similar methods to manage them have hampered better circulation of art objects and improvement of the collection mechanism. The protection of antiquities typically calls for extreme vigilance in situ, at specific archaeological sites. Paintings, on the other hand, are portable objects. It would be impractical to endlessly include entire collections of contemporary masters as national treasures and subject them to the same procedures as antiquities.
The acquisition and administration of art collections require a wholly different approach. A mandatory register, as envisaged by the Act, with minimum details may be sufficient to manage antiquities, but that is not the case with paintings. Art requires comprehensive cataloguing. Improving the collections, as Nicholas Goodison's report on securing the best for the museums in the United Kingdom notes, does not mean that all important paintings should be compulsorily acquired. What is required is “well-judged acquisition.” In a country where museums are struggling to keep their head above water, it is imperative that decisions to improve art collections are based on a thoughtful plan. Art administrators, with the aid of a proper system of cataloguing, should identify representative corpuses of various artists in their collections and mark the ‘surplus.' They should invest their scarce resources on important paintings they do not have; and if need be, ‘surplus' art works could be used to mobilise more resources. Existing legal frameworks must be reviewed to facilitate this and enable art collections to circulate better. Such progressive measures could also lead to potential partnerships between private and public museums and the sharing of scarce resources.