Raiders of hidden arks

September 24, 2016 03:40 am | Updated November 16, 2021 11:11 pm IST

The return to India of three ancient sculptures from the >National Gallery of Australia is another milestone in the long and difficult campaign waged by several countries to repossess their cultural treasures, which have often been bought by museums from idol smugglers. As the provenance of the artefacts — the 900-year old statues of Goddess Pratyangira and Seated Buddha, and the third century Worshippers of Buddha — became clear, the only ethical course open to the Australian gallery was to restore the sculptures, which it must be commended for pursuing. Evidently, the two icons other than the sandstone Seated Buddha were acquired from a >New York-based art dealer, Subhash Kapoor , for about $840,000 on the strength of fake documentation: he is now facing prosecution in Tamil Nadu. These are by no means isolated instances. In June, the United States formally returned to India about 200 stolen cultural objects, which include 2,000-year-old artefacts, part of a $100 million trove unearthed by an investigation of Kapoor’s art business. What emerges from these long battles to reclaim articles that constitute cultural heritage is the insight that a dedicated national agency with State government support would be better equipped to fight the scourge of theft and illicit transfer. With trained personnel, it could devote itself to the task of documenting antiquities and ensuring that the country’s ports are sealed against smuggling.

The National Gallery of Australia’s inquiry into the status of its Asian art objects conducted by a retired judge, Susan Crennan, has had the positive outcome of identifying 22 articles that have questionable or doubtful credentials, 14 of which were purchased from Kapoor. Many of the findings in the Australian review underscore the importance of creating a strong repository of information of all Indian antiquities, backed up by unimpeachable forensic records, so that they may be claimed without difficulty at a future date. A lot of the illicit trade has been carried out by smugglers who have laundered the provenance of idols using fake documentation designed to overcome the prohibition imposed by the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 on non-governmental exports. Providentially, it is the records of a research institution such as the French Institute of Pondicherry that helped establish the claim to the 11th-12th century Nataraja idol stolen from Tamil Nadu in 2006. Documentation of antiquities using public and private records should become a national mission. These treasures could then be put on display in national museums.

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