Tuesday, 7 August 2012

"Fuzzy" Pictures versus Fuzzy Provenance

As David Gill notes, the National Gallery of Australia has issued a statement about the acquisition of the bronze Shiva:
[...] The Gallery purchased its Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance from Mr Kapoor in 2008 following a thorough due diligence process regarding the quality, provenance and time of its departure from India.
They claim they have some "supplied documentation" of provenance from Kapoor - it is a shame that the information from it is not summarised on the NGA website. There remains a mystery where it was between the end of the tenth century AD and the purchase date 2008 (the object has the accession number 2008.1) - that's eleven centuries unaccounted for. The earlier collecting history for the piece is unstated.

An earlier account has a puzzling sentence "With only fuzzy internet images to go on, the gallery cannot confirm if the Shiva statue in question is the one in its collection". The text itself contains no clue where one can see the "fuzzy" photos.

I presume it is the Tamil Nadu police's Idol Thefts webpage. Right at the top (and again a bit lower down) we meet an interesting representation of Natrajar and Devi. These (the dimensions are not stated, but the Natrajar is said to be 'very large') were allegedly stolen from the Sivan temple at Sree Puranthan Village in Ariyalur District some time between January and November 2006 by Sanjivi Asokan and shipped out from Chennai to Kapoor on 25.11.2006.

Sree Puranthan Nataraja
Canberra's Nataraja
Yes, the Indian photo (supplied by the Executive Officer, Hindu Religious, Charitable Endowment board, Govt. of Tamil Nadu) is indeed fuzzy and apparently shows some kind of extraneous crud on the surface of the bronze. Even given that the iconography of the image was fairly rigid, the resemblance is striking - interestingly the object is lit from exactly the same direction in both photos). The only clear difference is in the form of the base of the object. Does the Canberra object show signs of modification at this point? One motive for removing an original base from a sculpture may have been if on cleaning an inscription was revealed which might have allowed it to be traced. The Canberra Shiva has clearly been cleaned (by whom, when and where?).

Are these the same object? Or are they two different ones? One in a temple in southern India until it disappeared at the end of 2006, reportedly disappearing into Mr Kapoor's shop - the other "surfacing" in Mr Kapoor's shop in New York just over a year later. Just what kind of documentation was supplied to the Canberra purchasers with this newly-surfaced object? To be licit it would have had to have left India before 1972. How was that demonstrated to the buyers, and why is that information not given on the Museum's website?  Why has the photo of the object been removed from the Museum website?

The  Art Gallery of NSW is taking a rather aggressive stance on the origin of this piece (No evidence artworks stolen: NSW gallery): "There's nothing to suggest that ancient artefacts held by the Art Gallery of NSW were plundered from Indian temples, director Michael Brand says", so there! So far however there is equally nothing on their website to indicate that the object was legitimately exported from India and has a licit provenance. The only piece of collecting history offered is that it was purchased from a (now notorious) dealer who is sitting in an Indian jail, as well as having a US arrest warrant on him (and a comparatively large amount of his current stock seized in the US), on grounds of his alleged involvement in smuggling and theft from monuments.

If there is currently no evidence in the public domain either way, I suppose collectors would say half-full/half-empty (presumption of innocence and all that), but Ockham's Razor suggests Mr Brand has a problem here. Why not just release the documentation supplied with the object? Are they a secret, or should not the public learn on what basis the gallery and its board of Trustees gave the OK for the purchase? [Oh, and can we have a closeup of the base of the Canberra piece from both sides? Got a conservation report?]. Transparency, transparency, transparency, that's all it takes to settle doubts.

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