Andhra Pradesh

Issue of art trafficking back in the spotlight

File photo for representation. 14 artefacts illicitly acquired by Australia are set to be returned to India  

The decision of the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) to return 14 works of art to India has brought the key issue of trafficking of cultural properties back in the spotlight.

“Our cultural wealth is scattered around the world even as we mark the 50th anniversary of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, an international treaty that aims at preventing theft of cultural property,” says Professor Amareswar Galla, an India-born Australian citizen and UNESCO Chair in the Asia Pacific on Museums.

“The onus of conducting due diligence before acquiring cultural property lies on the institution acquiring the material,” he insists, adding that even the Code of Ethics of the International Council of Museums calls on cultural institutions to follow the rulebook.

However, museums face the challenge of antique dealers producing fake certificates of ownership and vouch for their authenticity. “Several western cultural institutions have fallen in the ‘trap’ and a few have deliberately colluded to acquire the material,” he says.

On the NGA acquiring the illicitly-trafficked objects from notorious dealer Subhash Kapoor, Prof. Galla says quality research would have precluded the museum from acquiring the material for what was then the Indian Gallery in Canberra, where the objects were initially showcased.

Prof. Galla attributes the NGA move to investigations by journalists like Michaela Boland and national embarrassment caused by both the Commonwealth and the State governments that led to the Australian Minister for Culture to mandate provenance research and a critical look at the acquisition of objects by the cultural institutions in the last five years.

“Objects returned to India in the last three years are a result of government intervention,” he says.

Indian art has been the target of the illicit market for almost a century and conservative estimates put the scale of the loot to more than ₹100 million a year. Gangs go on recces scouting for sellable art and systematically loot them and smuggle them out of the country via sophisticated supply chains involving art storage, movers, art experts and restorers.

“India is yet to receive the bulk of the promised 200 artefacts from the United States (part of the Subhash Kapoor seizures and promised to the Prime Minister in June, 2016). Hundreds of antiquities from just that seizure await India’s claim,” says S. Vijay Kumar, co-founder of the India Pride Project (IPP) and author of The Idol Thief.

IPP is a global effort to track and reinstate the country’s stolen heritage and currently, it is working on over 46 cases of major idol thefts from across the country, tracked to various museums and auction houses.

Mr. Kumar says Australia has agreed to return the idols because of the existence of documented and archival photographs and publications in the sites of Tamil Nadu.

“There are other museums and auction houses in America, Singapore, United Kingdom and EU who are reluctant to follow in Australia's footsteps,” he says.

A.P. treasures

Mr. Kumar says in Andhra Pradesh, there is no attempt to investigate the spate of thefts (three thefts) from the Buddhist site of Chandavaram in the early 2000s.

“We have matched many objects from the same site to museums in the United States, Singapore and UAE,” he says.

Though there are FIRs for these objects, the Andhra Pradesh custodians made no attempt to link the case to Kapoor, nor have they followed up on seeking their return, he says.

“Security of these valuable collections and archaeological sites should be a priority,” insists Prof Galla, adding that sufficient staff and digitised documentation will help a great deal.

“A digital document helps to generate an ‘Object ID’ as soon as something is stolen. It should immediately be shared with the Ministry of Culture, Interpol and the World Customs Organisation in Tokyo,” he recommends insisting that information about stolen objects needs to travel faster than the object.

The current pandemic times with reduced vigilance and staff, he says, creates an ideal landscape for antique dealers to unleash loot.

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Printable version | Sep 28, 2021 1:03:37 PM |

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