Saturday, 14 March 2009

Who should own Gandhi's glasses - and why?

Dr A. Srivathsan has an interesting article in the Hindu ("Who owns antiquity?" 15th March) which draws on the recent story of the sale of Gandhi memorabilia (relics?) to discuss some wider issues:
The world of antiquities is a murky and complex one where ownership is a contested space. Many Indian sculptures (and pieces of architecture) of immense historical value are still languishing in Western museums. In this context, it was naïve to expect Gandhi’s memorabilia to be returned voluntarily. [...] In the hypocritical, complex world of antiquities, the question who rightfully owns the object is never taken seriously, leave alone answered properly.
Worth a read and a think. In connection with this latest sale it is interesting to see collectors once again adopting a holier-than-thou stance with whole nations and their governments, Pierre Berge declares he will halt the selling of the items he's flogging off (an infamous rat and rabbit) if China will "free Tibet", the Gandhi seller wanted to make a deal to force the Indian government to spend more on health care. This seems to be analogous to the dealers' lobby declaring that they are striking a blow for "free enterprise" in the "source countries" with their "restrictive antiquities preservation legislation" by buying goods no-questions-asked and suggesting that the way to "stop the looting" is to drop the restrictive laws that make it illegal. Yeah right.

1 comment:

Nathan Elkins said...

Thanks for pointing this article out. I had been informally following the story about Gandhi's glasses and India's plans to try and attain them. Some of Dr. Srivathsan's remarks remind of Neil Brodie's essay "Smoke and Mirrors," which I have mentioned several times before. All of the discussion with antiquities dealers and individuals closely associated with the market seem to devolve into these diversionary tactics that Brodie discusses and they ultimately serve the agenda of maintaining a detrimental status quo. The last sentence of Srivathsan's quote that you cite illustrates this point.

It easy for American dealers and collectors to point fingers at "oppressive regimes" or various inequalities in certain countries, but these views are often part and parcel of American exceptionalism. To put it in perspective, I can only imagine how much outrage there would be from politically conservative American dealers, and many others, if a French dealer or collector had George Washington's wooden teeth and was demanding the U.S. grant universal healthcare to its citizens, for example.

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