Heritage for Sale

By Sarosh Bana
Executive Editor, Business India, and EWCA Mumbai Chapter Leader

Looted Indian antiquities handed over by the Honolulu Museum of Art in the investigation of dealer Subhash Kapoor.

Looted Indian antiquities handed over by the Honolulu Museum of Art in the investigation of dealer Subhash Kapoor. Photo: artnet.

The global trade in plundered antiquities has expanded so far and wide that an international investigation into artifacts smuggled out of India led the authorities to the Honolulu Museum of Art.

On 1 April, the museum handed over seven rare items – including a 2,000-year-old terra cotta rattle – that it had acquired without realising their clandestine origins. Agents from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)’s Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) department will accompany these items to New York from where they will be eventually returned to the government of India.

Like many other stolen antiquities, these items too had been pilfered from Hindu temples and ancient Buddhist sites and allegedly smuggled to the United States through a network run by Subhash Kapoor, a 66-year-old Indian-born art dealer settled in New York. Kapoor was arrested by immigration officials at Frankfurt airport in Germany in October 2011 and extradited to India in July 2012 to stand trial on charges of trafficking artworks. He is lodged in the Puzhal prison in Chennai, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

In January 2014, Washington had similarly returned to India three smuggled idols worth $1.5 million and dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries. This gesture was seen as conciliation of the Indian government after bilateral diplomatic relations had been strained owing to the arrest, body search and expulsion of Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade. The items included two sandstone sculptures of Hindu deities Vishnu and Lakshmi and a black stone sculpture of a Bodhisattva – a Buddhist path-seeker – stolen from temples across the states of Rajasthan, Bihar and West Bengal.

These instances are part of a growing trend where priceless antiquities from one country surreptitiously end up in the museums, art galleries and private collections of another. And disturbingly, Kapoor and his minions are suspected to be behind many such instances. The Manhattan district attorney’s office also has a warrant for his arrest on charges of possessing stolen property, with investigators having seized more than $20 million worth of Asian antiquities from storage units in Manhattan linked to him. Many of these ancient bronze and sandstone statues were found to have been looted from temples in India.

One such priceless artefact was also recently returned to New Delhi by Canberra that sought to bring to an end this international art scandal of vast implications. The item was a stolen Kushan period Buddha statue from 2nd century BC that had surfaced in the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra in 2007. The Gandhara and Mathura schools of art had flourished during the reign of the Kushan dynasty that had ruled over most of the northern Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan and parts of Central Asia between the 1st and 3rd centuries BC, and which had been instrumental in spreading Buddhism in Central Asia and China.

The Australian government’s decision was prompted by India’s request for a service of process on grounds that the red sandstone Buddha, originally from the northern region of Uttar Pradesh in India, had been stolen and sold fraudulently to Australian authorities. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has on several occasions stated that improving relations with India was high on his priority list and one of the ways he has reached out to the Indian government is by returning stolen artefacts smuggled out of India.

Heeding a long-pending request from India, Abbott had used his state visit there last September to hand over to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi two antique statues of Hindu deities that were on display in Australian galleries, including the NGA, after having been stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu. One sculpture was of Nataraja, the dancing Shiva, belonging to the Chola dynasty of the 11th-12th century, while the other was of Ardhanariswara, which represents Shiva in half-female form, and dates back to the 10th century. The bronze statue of Nataraja was acquired from Kapoor in 2008 by NGA at a price of $5.1 million, while the Ardhanariswara stone statue was purchased for $280,374 in 2004 by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

The repatriation of the stolen Indian antiquities, however, raises a larger issue. Can institutions like the privately-run Honolulu Museum of Art, and NGA, a designated Australian Government Agency, walk away from such episodes and be absolved of all responsibility, liability and criminality simply because they are returning stolen exhibits that they have purchased and/or publicly displayed. For instance, would Kapoor walk free if he were to return the ill-gotten antiquities?

Illegal excavations and the illicit trade in cultural property have been flourishing just because this criminality, that desecrates a nation’s heritage and cultural wealth, is patronised, unwittingly or otherwise, by individual art collectors and national museums and galleries. Seeking to tighten its legislation of 2007 on the protection of cultural objects, the German government noted that although it is “common practice for museums not to purchase cultural objects of indeterminate provenance”, the fact remains that “illegally excavated or illicitly exported cultural treasures are still being bought and sold”.

Alarmed by this illicit trafficking of national history and by the fact that the widespread turmoil in civil war-torn Middle Eastern and African countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen has led to the plunder of cultural sites and national collections, archaeological custodians the world over are urging for stricter protection of these treasures and effective norms for their recovery.

India especially has an extraordinarily rich, vast and diverse cultural heritage in the form of built heritage, archaeological sites and ruins since prehistoric times. The sheer magnitude in numbers alone is overwhelming and these are the symbols of both cultural expression and evolution. A lot of this invaluable heritage was carted away to Britain as spoils of the Empire during its colonisation of India between 1858 and 1947, the most remarkable having been Koh-i-Noor, Persian for Mountain of Light, once the largest diamond in the world and measuring 793 carats when it was uncut. Installed in a temple of a Hindu goddess as one of her eyes, this stone, 105.6 carats at present, is now set into the crown worn by the female consort to the British Monarch and is on display in the Tower of London.

The Council of Canberra’s NGA has itself initiated an independent review to address provenance issues of its Asian art collection that holds approximately 5,000 items. Provenance is the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of an historical object. An independent reviewer has been appointed by the Council to report to it on the interpretation of relevant cultural laws (Australian and country of origin). It has also revised the gallery’s due diligence procedures to align with federal guidelines for collecting cultural material, and launched the NGA website provenance project for listing, and seeking further information about, all imaged sculptures from South Asia and Southeast Asia which the gallery is researching.

A preliminary internal assessment has identified 54 significant South Asian works, now public on the NGA website, for which further information and documentation are sought. The gallery expects detailed research of this kind to take several years to complete. “The NGA acknowledges that there are works in the collection whose provenance and legal status needs a renewed level of scrutiny,” said its Director, Gerard Vaughan. “The situation is regrettable, however we are now addressing these issues in a proactive and open manner.”

Experts are, however, asking whether institutions like the NGA are undertaking due diligence in a manner expected of them, especially when the antecedents of artworks are not specific or if their origin is India, which proscribes such trade. India’s Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972 stipulates “imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months, but which may extend to three years and with fine” for anyone exporting or attempting to export any antiquity or art treasure. Antiquities and art treasures have been notified as objects that have been in existence for not less than 100 years.

In the case of the arrested Kapoor, he used his gallery website, since closed, to highlight the many prominent museums he used to professionally deal with, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

The Kushan Buddha had reportedly been purchased for the NGA from Kapoor “with the generous assistance” of billionaire Australian philanthropist Roslyn (Ros) Packer. The gallery was constrained to launch an inquiry once the Indian authorities took up the issue with Australia. It transpired that Kapoor had misled the NGA into believing that the red sandstone idol had been purchased from a British collector in Hong Kong.

The malaise appears far-reaching. The solitary comprehensive study of provenance ever undertaken was in 2000 by British archaeologists Christopher Chippindale and David Gill when they systematically reviewed the reliability of the claimed provenance in the catalogues of seven important international collections of antiquities. To their consternation, they found that as much as 75 per cent of the 1,396 objects they reviewed had no documented provenance whatsoever. Over 500 of the antiquities did not have any kind of “object history”, which meant they appeared for the first time in those public exhibitions, underscoring the fact that they were sourced from clandestine excavations. They also found that items whose excavation sites had been specified as “unknown” in earlier exhibitions, had on subsequent occasions been assigned to particular origins, an indication that their provenances were fabricated.

At times, countries themselves have been culpable of historical and archaeological neglect. “There is no comprehensive record in the form of database where such archaeological resources in terms of built heritage, sites and antiquities can be referred,” says Meena Gautam, Director, National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities, of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). “As a result, this finite, non-renewable and irreplaceable resource of our country is fast disappearing without any record for posterity.” She thus underscores “an urgent need” for a proper survey of such resources and, based on that, the formulation of an appropriate archaeological heritage resource management and policy. While the National Mission estimates approximately seven million antiquities in India, it has till now managed to register only around 480,000 of them. Experts, however, view the Mission’s calculation of antiquities as grossly underestimated.

The global trafficking in antiquities should raise as much concern as the “cultural cleansing” perpetrated by the ISIS marauders in Iraq and Syria who have till now in Iraq razed the ancient Assyrian capitals of Khorsabad and Nimrud, bludgeoned centuries-old artefacts in the Mosul Museum, and bulldozed the ancient ruined city of Hatra.

Treasure-hunting collectors, museums and galleries owe a moral responsibility to society – and to their own trade – by ensuring against participating in a plunder that impoverishes and eviscerates cultures.