Saturday 14 July 2012

The Murky International Trail of India's Stolen Antiquities

The article by A. Srivathsan ('The murky trail of stolen antiquities', The Hindu The Hindu.
The trail of the biggest such racket revealed so far was traced back to Jaipur. In July 2003, after a year-long surveillance, the police arrested Vaman Narayan Ghiya, the owner of a handicrafts shop in the Rajastan capital. His shop was only a front; in reality it was a hub of illicit trading in antiquities. The New Yorker, in a story on Ghiya in May 2007, described how 348 sculptures, a dismantled Mughal pavilion and antiquities of all kinds were recovered from his shop.
In India, smuggling antiquities is a "theoretical impossibility". All ancient art objects including privately owned ones must be registered with an appropriate authority. Their export is banned.
Any newly made artefact that resembles an antiquity must be certified by the archaeological authorities as being so and declared as not historically valuable before they can be taken out of the country. Customs authorities are to check for all art objects that are carried in person or shipped. However, looking at the regular appearance of Indian antiquities on the stolen list of Interpol, it is clear that the preventive net has gaping holes and that the system is not really working.
The methods described by 'The Hindu' reporter are those used in other parts of the global antiquities network to circumvent  the legislation. The smugglers would obtain the objects they needed for their international trade through what the newspaper describes as "a well-oiled network of local petty thieves and middlemen to scout and steal from poorly guarded temples and museums".
Once the stolen goods reach their ‘shops,’ they would pack them along with other handicrafts with proper certification and purchase bills in large containers and ship them out. In the absence of enough container scanners and comprehensive checks by Customs officials, the stolen antiquities would easily slip through. Police sources say that smugglers from Tamil Nadu typically invest less and sell big. They would not use large containers to transport a few stolen sculptures. Instead, they would make replicas of stolen idols, forge signatures of stapathis or traditional sculptors who have their workshops with proper addresses, declaring that the sculptures were cast in their ateliers. The certifying authorities are often unable to make out the difference and thus many stolen idols slip through. Selling a stolen artefact is not easy in the international art market. Increasingly, wealthy buyers demand to know the provenance of antiquities. To circumvent this, smugglers would first ship illicit antiquities to friendly art houses and galleries in cities such as Zurich and Hong Kong, or use their own network of offices. The stolen objects would then reach auction houses in London or New York with newly acquired addresses. India Today, which was among the earliest to elaborately expose Ghiya’s illegitimate operations, in June 2003 described how 34 catalogues each of Sotheby’s and Christie’s on Indian and South-East Asian art, along with stolen material, were found in his shop. Ghiya identified 700 artefacts which figured in the catalogues.

The article concludes:
Interpol sees such illicit trading to be widely prevalent and considers it as menacing as arms and drug trafficking. Despite international conventions prohibiting trading in illicit antiquities, and museums increasingly opting to follow ethical practices, stolen antiquities add up to a multi-billion-dollar industry. Unlike in developed countries, Indian museums and religious institutions that possess antiquities have poor documentation, and the police are largely ill-equipped and lack expertise. As a result, many of the antiquities stolen from India remain untraced. The Ministry of Culture in 2007 listed 13 objects that are yet to be brought back to India. In 2010, in a written reply in the Lok Sabha, it admitted that no stolen or lost antiquities had been retrieved or recovered during the last three years.
Those of us familiar with the writings of dealers and collectors are dismayed by their attitudes that this is the fault of the so-called "source nations", who - they hold - are incapable of looking after the cultural property in their territories themselves (which is how they explain the fact that items are stolen). The Americans in particular are very fond of trotting out this argument. Then they have the insolence to suggest that it is the "enlightened' collectors of the western world (private collectors and museums)  who are better suited to look after the "world's heritage"  which the brown-skinned guys cannot be trusted to curate. This neo-colonialist atavism is the height of arrogance. How dare they ignore the fact that is the no-questions-asked market which they support which causes the smuggling of items to feed it which in turn drives the thieving necessary to supply the smugglers with goods to smuggle. Let us be under no illusion, behind many a plush "gallery" is a network of utter crooks profiting from the greed of the clients of the type of antiquity dealer who cannot supply verifiable documentation of licit origins for the individual items he stocks.  Yes in so-called 'undeveloped countries', museums and institutions that possess antiquities should make every effort to improve documentation, and to give the law enforcement agencies the resources and training needed to deal with the smashing of smuggling and looting rings. But the buyers at the other end cannot continue to avoid their responsibilities for the current state of affairs.

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