With depressing regularity, Indian antiquities are stolen from archaeological sites and traded. The recent Interpol alert on the six most-wanted art objects lists yet another exquisite artefact missing from India. It is clear that existing measures to safeguard antiquities are incapable of doing the job. Illicit removal of cultural objects is a double jeopardy: stolen antiquities are irreplaceable by themselves; secondly, when they are illegally removed from an archaeological site, crucial historical information about the place and time is lost. To argue that inadequate funding alone accounts for this dismal situation is disingenuous; the dated legal regimes and non-performing institutional mechanisms are at least as culpable. They are unimaginatively restrictive; suffer poor enforcement; lack incentives to encourage reporting of finds; and inhibit community participation in caring for artefacts. The Indian Treasure Trove Act, last amended in 1949, is obsolete beyond belief. Any object worth more than Rs.10 and found hidden in the soil is designated as a treasure. A public-spirited person who dutifully reports the find is often made to go through a cumbersome procedure. The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act mandates that antiquities in private possession must be registered and the person trading in them must get a licence. It is honoured mainly in the breach.
Best practices in England and Wales show that it helps to have an amended legal framework that is accommodative and forward-looking. They also demonstrate that the practical way to enhance protection is to involve communities in reporting and protecting artefacts. The Portable Antiquities Scheme, implemented in England and Wales, is one of the biggest success stories of recent times. The scheme encourages local communities to voluntarily report and register the discovery of artefacts with the help of experts. The resulting data base is placed in the public domain. So far it has documented 400,000 archaeological finds, including the remarkable eighth-century Staffordshire Hoard. The functional features of such schemes can be modified to suit Indian conditions but there must be sincere and diligent implementation. Efforts in Italy demonstrate that enhanced and dedicated policing and the aggressive pursuit of stolen antiquities abroad is equally necessary. In 2009, Italian art police recovered about 60,000 pieces of looted antiquities and helped reduce art theft by 14.5 per cent from the previous year. Comparable results can be achieved in India if protective measures are professionalised and creative partnerships developed with local communities.