Behind the Sophisticated Lobbies Helping the Antiquities Black Market
The Antiquities Law needs to evolve with consultation from experts worldwide
On 15 August 2019, a limestone carved relief sculpture from Andhra Pradesh, dated between the first century BCE and the first century CE, and a Navaneetha Krishna bronze sculpture from 17th century Tamil Nadu were repatriated to the Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Ruchi Ghanashyam.
34 such artefacts have been returned in the past five years and over 200 promised to be returned to India. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abott personally returned a Chola Shiva Nataraja and German Chancellor Angela Merkel returned a 10th century Durga Mahisasuramardini, in acts of repatriation of objects of cultural importance.
International dealers like Subhash Kapoor and Nancy Weiner were the biggest dealers of classical South Asian art in North America. They would consign sculptures to global auction houses and realise fantastic prices.
But in 2016, in the midst of Asia Week in New York, the US government’s Department of Homeland Security raided the Christies office for looted artefacts consigned by Nancy Weiner. She was one among four dealers raided by enforcement agencies.
Kapoor and Weiner have both successfully placed significant pieces in top museums around the world, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – curated by Indian art historian Pratapaditya Pal, former editor of Marg magazine – the Birmingham Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Australia, and the Guimet among many others.
Both dealers are currently behind bars for smuggling Indian antiquities over several decades. Subhash Kapoor was called the largest commodities smuggler in the world, and his commodities were Indian antiquities.
Who is to blame for this? The classical art market lobby in India unequivocally blames the laws governing the trade of antiquities in India. The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972, was recently termed draconian and insufficient at a conference held in Mumbai to discuss it.
In familiar sounding complaints, attendees said the law had launched a Licence Raj in India, condemned the tedious registration process, and blamed closed-border policies for pushing the market underground to enable the pilfering of antiquities.
These antiquities may be valued at over 100 million US dollars, based on the loot recovered from Subhash Kapoor’s hoard alone.
The international antiquities black market is valued at an annual 2-6 billion US dollars by the United Nations.
A sophisticated lobby with focused commercial interests at work, and a weakened Archaeological Survey of India, understaffed and shackled by a convoluted bureaucracy, are putting the fate of Indian antiquities at risk.
This lobby wants to revoke the Antiquities and Art Treasures Law of 1972, which will lead to several problems.
For one, they want the registration system removed. But removing this system would devalue the market, as there would be no stamp of authenticity to differentiate an original from a fake. India’s forgery market is advanced and has been a cohort of the black market for decades.
Moreover, the government would no longer have any system of assessing the value of India’s cultural property, and absolutely no way to repatriate stolen objects.
And with the removal of licences for dealers, another demand, there would be no quality control or watch on methods of acquiring inventory.
Many believe that the antiquities law, rather than being revoked, needs to evolve with consultation from experts both national and international.
A useful comparison is what China has done with its antiquities market, the success of which had a direct impact on the development of that government’s soft power narrative, making China a destination to engage in the arts.
China’s cultural property laws permit the sale of cultural relics that are not already owned by the state. Over the past several years China has established museums and institutes of specialisation in auctioneering and art history, set up artist villages, and cracked down on temple looting and grave robbing.
China is doing everything it can to monetise its cultural property within its borders. As of March 2016, dealers there need only obtain a standard business licence and register with the government’s Ministry of Culture. It has lowered its import tax on cultural property from 12% to 3%, making it easier to import and acquire Chinese art and antiquities in China.
In India meanwhile, what does the ASI need? We asked an expert who preferred to remain anonymous:
“First, a larger body of registration officers, with qualifications embedded in art history and archaeology. Their work should be supplemented by a competent laboratory that would date artefacts in all ASI circle offices and field schools.
“Second, a provenance mapping team. Some believe a task force needs to be set up that would map the provenance of looted objects. This work is currently being championed by a citizen-run organisation called the India Pride Project, founded by S.Vijay Kumar who lives in Singapore.”
Kumar is also author of the recently published book The Idol Thief that recounts the Subhash Kapoor story of smuggling antiquities out of India.
Several museums around the world are hiring and training provenance experts to combat the bad press they have been accumulating due to the problematic provenances of antiquities from various parts of the world, often collected as loot dating back to colonial times. Top museums around the world have seen resignations based on problematic provenances.
(A provenance is the unbroken chain of ownership of the artefact from the time of its creation to the present.)
“Third, the ASI would benefit from a formalised and decentralised form of documentation. At present it doesn’t even have the wherewithal to create a complete registry of sculptures in situ. Thus documentation formats that are immutable need to be negotiated and implemented.
“Similarly, the registration process and licences too need to systematised. Valuation mechanisms need to be opened by declaring sale prices and making the market more transparent by law.”
The public in India would also benefit from a well-conceived acquisition policy for museums both public and private. A Comptroller and Auditor General report from 2012 accused museums of not rotating their exhibits or acquiring more pieces for display, to maintain a steady flow of visitors.
And typically there is little useful interpretation for visitors, leaving audiences disconnected from the objects, making antiquities a stagnant field of engagement, without life or history. More engagement with the public would in turn create an educated public more concerned about these forms of commercialisation and theft.
As far as looting is concerned, it can be curbed and pre-empted only through surveillance. With the setting up of the new Satellite Remote Sensing Department at the ASI, it will become easier for officials to monitor sites and expand the ASI’s mandate for discovery and monitoring in real time.
On the shores of the Bay of Bengal, the Sun Temple at Konarak is one of India’s most famous Brahman sanctuaries. Built in the 1200s, the temple is a representation of the sun god Surya’s chariot and its 24 wheels, led by six horses. The Sun Temple is a testimony to the 13th Hindu Kingdom of Orissa, under the reign of Narasimha Deva I during the mid 13th century. Like many Indian temples, the temple at Konarak contains several distinct units including a vimana (principal sanctuary), a high tower with a shikhara (crowning cap), a jahamogana (audience hall), and a natmandir (dance hall). The inscriptions that cover the temple serve as a window into the political, religious, and social culture of the period. ⠀ Image Credit: Google Earth⠀ #GlobalXplorer #XploretheWorld #Culture #Heritage #Archaeology #citizenscience #citizenarchaeology #culturalheritage #BayofBengal #SunTemple #temple #Konarak #India #Brahman #Surya #KingdomofOrissa #1200s #IndianTemple #inscriptions #political #religious
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Finally, an Art Historical Survey of India is required. While archaeologists are capable of dealing with archaeological data, a community of art historians needs to be nurtured. They need to be employed by public museums, the ASI, policy agencies, think tanks and universities to improve research on Indian antiquities, both moveable artefacts and those in situ.
Likewise, more exhibitions need to be curated to add fresh perspectives to these arts.
The classical art sector in India needs to acknowledge a legal problem and a human resource problem. Public-minded solutions will take time to emerge and will have to follow due process. Lawyers, archaeologists and art historians need to play an active advisory role.
The shortage of trained manpower is one that can be tackled easily. It is an immediate step to strengthen the human resources at agencies like the ASI, museums, institutes and galleries.
This will foster an intelligent market, a protected history and competent policy papers that can guide the legal frameworks to be developed with these historical treasures in mind.
This necessary process may yet be strayed by a certain monopoly of voices in the antiquities sector, as they use their access to networks and patronage to gain the ear of the government.