Saturday 6 July 2013

Huffer and the Trustees

Michaela Boland, 'Galleries need new standards for collecting precious artefacts', The Australian July 06, 2013.
"It takes about seven minutes to walk from the Art Gallery of NSW, across the Domain in Sydney to the gallery's sister institution, the State Library of NSW. Had curators at the gallery made that walk in 2004, before they finalised the $300,000 acquisition of a magnificent 1000-year-old carving of Ardhanarishvara, an androgynous form of the Hindu god Shiva and his consort Parvati, with the bull Nandi, they might have become suspicious that the carving had been stolen". 
The library has a copy of Douglas E. Barrett's 1974 book Early Chola Architecture and Sculpture, 866-1014AD and in it, they'd have found a photograph of a stone statue still standing in Vriddhachalam in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, "which bears an uncanny resemblance to the AGNSW's Ardhanarishvara".
Based on this photograph, University of Sydney art theft scholar Damien Huffer says he's confident the statue in the Sydney gallery's collection was lifted off the wall of an Indian temple [...] Huffer says the gallery's curators undertook insufficient due diligence before the purchase. "For a museum or gallery to truly perform due diligence requires that they bring all of their often considerable resources to bear to assess all available published information, and not merely what the dealer suggests," he says.
Coy, Damien, too coy. Call a spade a spade. The dealer's lies.

Anyhow, "Removing the original object from India was illegal and, should India ask, the AGNSW will be obliged to surrender without compensation the $300,000 jewel of its upper Asian gallery".
It has become evident in the year since The Australian first reported on this case that ownership history checking in Australia has not been sufficiently thorough. We are a wealthy country, young in museum terms, and our awakening to the art of our near neighbours is relatively recent. Without the UNESCO convention, our appetite for their treasures might have known no bounds. [...] it remains unclear who is going to take responsibility for the fact both galleries are poised to relinquish more than $7m worth of items bought with taxpayer funds or donations for which the donors received a tax break.[...] Legal heritage expert Patrick O'Keefe says the time is ripe for a thorough investigation in Australia into whether gallery trustees should be held accountable in the same way other company directors are. No collecting institution buys items of significance without their explicit approval. Somebody's got to own decisions that are bringing international shame and financial loss to the collecting institutions the population holds dear.
There is then a long litany of museum and other officials who felt unable to comment on this aspect of the story.

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