The theft of history

August 10, 2012 02:15 am | Updated December 03, 2021 10:40 am IST

Despite domestic laws and international conventions, the theft and smuggling of illicit antiquities remain unabated. As a result, stolen Indian artefacts surface in antique shops and auction houses across the world on a distressingly regular basis. The recent seizure of artefacts estimated at Rs. 90 crore from a storage facility of an antique dealer in New York by the U.S. customs officials confirms that archaeological sites, religious places and even museums in the country remain as vulnerable as ever. Trade in illicit antiquities inflicts double jeopardy: the illegal removal of objects from their archaeological setting erases critical historical information; and it depletes a nation’s cultural capital. In 2003, the Ministry of Culture announced that it would amend the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act (1972) to make trading in stolen antiquities a non-bailable offence, prevent unauthorised production of replicas of antiquities and enhance the process of verification of art objects. Till date, none of this has happened. Even the database of existing antiquities is incomplete. In 2007, the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities was launched to create a register of artefacts. After five years, only five lakh objects of the estimated eight lakh have been recorded.

International indifference has not helped either. Import controls are lax in some countries such as Switzerland, making them safe havens for smugglers. Criminal laws in market countries have not deterred buyers and dealers of tainted art objects. For instance, the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003, operational in England, Wales & Northern Ireland, provides for sentencing dealers in tainted artefacts to prison, but it has hardly changed the situation. Many museums and collectors conveniently overlook the doubtful provenance of antiquities, making it easier for traders — and themselves — to acquire stolen antiquities. It is imperative that India, working through international organisations such as UNESCO, persuade countries to give up their apathy. But first, it should put its own house in order. Taking a cue from the success story of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, implemented in England and Wales, existing acts must be revised to encourage local communities voluntarily to report and register the discovery of artefacts with the help of experts. Museums have to be vastly improved to host antiquities in a meaningful manner and effectively perform their educative role. Setting up a well equipped, efficiently trained and dedicated investigating agency to track and prevent art theft is also critical. The loot has to be stopped and our precious heritage protected.

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