Sunday, 5 December 2021

Eighth Century AD Smuggled Indian Sculpture left to Decay in English Garden

            The sculpture tarted-up              
for sale by Sotheby's

An eighth century statue of a goat-headed female deity was being sold by Sotheby’s as lot 92 in its London auction of 14 November 1988. It was estimated to fetch around £15,000. The sale never took place and the object ended up abandoned standing outdoors in a garden where it was eroded by the effects of the weather, became overgrown by lichens and moss that attacked the surface of the stone (Dalya Alberge Looted and left in an English garden, the goat goddess can return to India Guardian Sat 4 Dec 2021. The sculpture had been stolen from a temple in the village of Lokhari in Uttar Pradesh, India between 1979 and 1982. There were 20 sandstone images of deities, each roughly five feet high and with animal heads, but villagers reported that a number were carted away in trucks by vandals. The one in question had been illustrated in the 1986 book "Yogini Cult and Temples: A Tantric Tradition" by Vidya Dehejia, former curator at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington. It seems that Sotheby's had accepted the item for sale, but after it was included in a catalogue it seems they were alerted to the fact that it was illegally obtained and smuggled out of the country of origin. They seem then to have quietly retracted the item from the auction. In 1997, the statue was among looted antiquities featured in the former Observer journalist Peter Watson’s damning book, titled Sotheby’s: Inside Story. The object was only recently found by Christopher Marinello, a lawyer and founder of Art Recovery International. It seems that Sotheby’s appears not to have revealed the consignor or turned over the details to the Metropolitan police, even during the investigations in 1998, when Peter Watson broke the story. More shockingly still, it remained in the UK for over two decades after being listed as stolen and missing in Watson's book. Sotheby's is reported to have been uncooperative with the investigations attempting to locate it. Marinelli says:
"I wrote to them. They were wholly uncooperative.” He added: “My goal is to call out Sotheby’s for selling loot but more importantly to highlight the countless looted objects in English gardens and collections related to colonial history. Collectors should come forward – sort of an amnesty – through us, and we will guarantee them anonymity. Otherwise, they risk embarrassment or legal seizure in the future when they or their heirs attempt to sell the loot in the marketplace”. The sculpture was rediscovered after the owner, who wants to remain anonymous, decided to sell her home. The sculpture was in the garden when she bought it 15 years ago. She immediately ensured that the sculpture would be returned unconditionally. A spokesman for the High Commission of India paid tribute to Marinello’s pro bono work [...] Sotheby’s said: “This episode relates to something that allegedly occurred almost quarter of a century ago. Sotheby’s adheres to the highest standards in the industry, supported by a world-class compliance team, who work closely with outside authorities to ensure that we operate to the highest level of business integrity.”
That's the antiquities business, the man selling bat meat in the market in Wuhan, China will claim the same. Perhaps the antiquities trade as a whole needs to re-examine its notions of what is the highest level and their degree of actual commitment to meeting them. What happens in a reputable firm if they find out a client at the cashier's desk is trying to use a stolen credit card to pay? Just hand it back politely and wish them a nice day? What should a business do if someone comes to them and offers stolen goods to them to sell? 

Picture of decay, the damaged statue in a garden, at least the lichens
show the air is relatively clean. The damage compared to the state
visible in the auctioneers' photos is devastating (Guardian)

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