One positive fallout of the warming relationship between India and Australia has been the return of priceless antiquities to India that had surreptitiously ended up in Australian art galleries.
In a move that sought to bring an end to an international art scandal of vast implications, the Australian government announced that it would be returning a stolen Kushan period Buddha statue dating back to the 2nd century BC that had surfaced in Canberra’s National Gallery of Art (NGA) 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.
Canberra’s decision was prompted by New Delhi’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 Ardhanariswara, which represents Shiva in half-female form, and dates back to the 10th century, while the other was of Nataraja, the dancing Shiva, belonging to the Chola dynasty of the 11th-12th century.
The bronze statue of Nataraja was acquired by NGA in 2008 at a price of $5.1 million from Subhash Kapoor who ran the Art of the Past gallery at 1242 Madison Avenue, at 89th Street, in New York. Kapoor, an American citizen born in India 63 years ago, was arrested in Germany in 2012 and subsequently extradited to India on charges of burglary and smuggling of Indian antiquities. The Manhattan district attorney’s office also has a warrant for his arrest in the United States 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.
The Ardhanariswara stone statue was purchased for $280,374 by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2004. “Returning the sculptures is a testimony to Australia’s good citizenship on such matters and the importance with which Australia views its relationship with India,” Abbott’s office has said.
Modi and Abbott have a good personal rapport and this has given an impetus to bilateral relations. The 63-year-old Bharatiya Janata Party leader of India and the 56-year-old Liberal Party leader of Australia were elected to office within eight months of each other, and Abbott became the first head of government to be hosted for a standalone bilateral visit by the Modi government that came to power in May 2014. Last November, Modi also became the first Indian prime minister in 28 years to visit Australia.
In a tribute to Abbott’s leadership, he said Australia was “no longer on the periphery of our region but at the heart of our thoughts”. While visiting India, Abbott had said: “The purpose of this trip, as far as I’m concerned, is to acknowledge the importance of India in the wider world, acknowledge the importance of India to Australia’s future, to let the government and the people of India know what Australia has to offer India and the wider world for our part, and to build on those stronger foundations.”
The repatriation of the stolen Indian antiquities, however, raises a larger issue. And that is whether institutions like the NGA, which is a designated Australian Government Agency, can 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 has 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 and Libya 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 England as spoils of the Empire during the British Crown rule over India between 1858 and 1947, the most remarkable having been the diamond named Koh-i-Noor (meaning Mountain of Light in Persian), 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 Monarch of the United Kingdom, and is on display in the Tower of London.
Indeed, the Council of the National Gallery of Australia has itself initiated an independent review to address provenance issues of its Asian art collection. Provenance is the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of an historical object. Following a meeting last November, the Council appointed an independent reviewer to report to it on the interpretation of relevant cultural laws (Australian and country of origin), 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.
The NGA’s Asian art collection holds approximately 5,000 items and a preliminary internal assessment has identified 54 significant South Asian works, now public on its 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.”
Criminologist Duncan Chappell from the University of Sydney’s Law School has been quoted as saying that the NGA has probably not been able to do due diligence in a manner one would have expected of a major institution. Terming the gallery “naive” in the way it has handled this matter, he believes its suspicions about the artworks’ antecedents should have been aroused, because obtaining any Indian antiquities was in itself “always a highly hazardous position” in view of the antiquities laws prevalent there. 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.
This malaise appears to be far-reaching. The only really 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. The two researchers 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 forged.
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. The National Mission estimates approximately seven million antiquities in India, whereas till now, it has managed to register only around 480,000 of them. Experts, however, believe the National Mission’s calculation of the antiquities is grossly underestimated.
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.
The Kushan Buddha had reportedly been purchased for the NGA from art trafficker Subhash 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 Australian authorities into believing that the red sandstone idol had been purchased from a British collector in Hong Kong. The investigations revealed that the New York-based gallerist had travelled to India and acquired two Kushan Buddhas from a trafficker.
Treasure-hunting collectors and galleries owe a moral responsibility to society – and to their own trade – by ensuring against participating in a plunder that impoverishes cultures.