Smuggling India’s Antiquities

Recent Features

Features | Society | South Asia

Smuggling India’s Antiquities

Existing measures to protect India’s rich heritage have proven to be woefully inadequate.

Smuggling India’s Antiquities
Credit: India sculpture via Shutterstock.com

Indian Tourism and Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma’s recent admission in parliament that eight cases of antiquities theft were reported from State-protected monuments and museums across three states over the last year, has yet again brought to the fore the fraught issue of pilferage and smuggling of art treasures from Indian shores.

According to Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based advocacy group, illegal trade in paintings, sculptures, and other artifacts is one of the world’s most lucrative criminal enterprises, estimated at $6 billion a year. And India, with its redoubtable cultural heritage, bureaucratic apathy, and tardy implementation of antiquities protection laws, offers pilferers fertile ground to plunder the past and spirit away booty worth billions for sale in the international bazaar.

This exploitation continues unabated despite the existence of The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 whose aim is to protect “antiquities,” an omnibus term that includes, among other items, sculptures in stone, shrines, terracotta, metals, jewelry, ivory, paintings in paper, wood, cloth, skin, and manuscripts over a hundred years old.

The Antiquities Act also mandates that owners of such art pieces register them with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the nodal agency responsible for archaeological excavations, conservation of monuments, and protection of heritage sites. The law also prohibits export of antiquities while permitting their sale within the country only under a license. Failure to comply with these rules can result in jail sentences of up to three years, a fine, or both. In what is seen as a blatantly unfair clause, the Act also empowers the State to compulsorily acquire an art object from its owner without any reliable assessment of a fair price.

Yet despite the punitive nature of law, Indian antiquities worth billions continue to be smuggled out of the country or hoarded in private collections sans documentation. Among the most audacious of Indian smugglers has been Subhash Kapoor, currently on trial in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. In 2011, Kapoor, owner of the “Art of the Past” gallery in Manhattan, was nabbed in Germany and subsequently extradited to India. Among other activities, he is alleged to have sold the 900­-year-­old bronze Nataraja for $5 million to the National Gallery of Australia in 2008 and a 1,100 ­year-­old stone sculpture of Shiva to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2004.

American authorities – who confiscated 2,622 items worth $107.6 million from Kapoor’s storerooms in Manhattan and Queens – have described him as the most ambitious antiquities smuggler in American history.

In June this year, the ASI unearthed a trove of Indian antiquities in Singapore, also allegedly procured from Kapoor. The lot included 30 objects, including idols and paintings whose provenance could be traced to the 10th century. Most of these were sold by Kapoor’s gallery between 2007 and 2012 to Singapore.

On his April sojourn to Canada this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was given the “Parrot Lady,” a 900-year-old sculpture from Khajuraho under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Trafficking in Cultural Property. The $10 million piece had been smuggled from India. A few American museums, located in Massachusetts and Hawaii, also claim to possess eight rare antiquities pilfered from India.

Even though India is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO treaty, experts say it is extremely tough to retrieve antiquities that have left the country. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, between 208 and 2012 a total of 4,408  items were stolen from 3,676 ASI­-protected monuments across the country, but only 1,493 could be intercepted by police. Overall, around 2,913 items are feared to have been shipped to dealers and auction houses worldwide.

Indian antiquities also regularly feature in scams involving the world’s two largest auction houses – Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Employees of these organizations have been known to work in connivance with Indian smugglers in the past to peddle stolen artifacts at auctions. Even websites like eBay claim to be selling Indian antiquities.

Dr. Satish Pandey, Assistant Professor, National Museum Institute of History of Art, Conservation and Museology, New Delhi, opines that the Indian government’s lackadaisical approach is primarily responsible for the current mess. “To date, India has documented only a few of its monuments; many are not even under State protection. Hundreds of buildings – like the stunning gompas (monasteries) of Ladakh and scores of temples in central and southern India – lie unprotected. The problem is made worse by flaws in the existing laws due to which most of the thefts do not come to light or go unreported.”

According to the National Mission for Monument and Antiquities, there are approximately 7 million antiquities in India. But by March this year, only 1.3 million had been documented. A report by the Comptroller and Audit General stated in 2013 that the ASI had never participated or collected information on Indian antiquities put on sale at Sotheby’s and Christie’s as there was no clear provision in the Antiquities Act, 1972 for doing so.

According to Naman P. Ahuja, Associate Professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, art also gets smuggled abroad rather than being kept at home because the present laws are drafted in a way that deters people from building private collections. “We have far too many antiquities for the government to be held responsible for safeguarding them. So if Indians aren’t going to build collections, and if our government institutions cannot cope with the plenitude, where is it all going to go? Abroad, obviously,” says Ahuja.

Since 1987, different governments have been trying to amend the flawed legislation. Unfortunately, after two committees and several consultations, the law still remains unmodified, entirely out of sync with the current needs for heritage protection in the country or the changed dynamic of the Indian art market.

“Heritage continues to be the least priority for most governments. Museums and the ASI remain gravely short-staffed with an inadequate number of licensing and registering officers. Worse, a combination of bureaucratic paperwork and staff crunch scupper the implementation of the Act,” explains a senior official at ASI.

Registering antiquities is also a cumbersome process, say insiders, which discourages art lovers and hobbles their documentation by the State. Experts have suggested electronic registration of antiquities as a less tedious alternative. They also point out that laws in the U.K. and Canada allow citizens to place their art for sale on the international market with the State given the chance to match the highest bid, unlike India where any antiquity can be impounded by a government agency without fair compensation to its owner.

“Having fair provisions in the act will balance the owners’ right to their property as well as the nation’s investment in important cultural objects,” explains Ahuja. The historian adds that smuggled Indian artifacts abroad raise important issues about the preservation and protection of Indian heritage.

“Catching one person every eight to ten years is reflective not of the success, but of the failure of the present laws. Although the authorities have managed to arrest few of the smugglers, thousands of art works have actually left India’s shores. So the larger question to ask is not how we can increase policing of our borders, but on why so many Indian art treasures continue to leave the country?”

Ahuja also recommends building larger cadres of art historians, conservators and archaeologists to man important sites and museums to safeguard and maintain heritage.

Sindhu Garg, a Delhi-based art gallery owner, is of the view that incentivizing art fairs, auctions, and art dealers will help solve the problem by creating a thriving domestic market. “India,” he explains, “is poised for exponential growth in the art market due to an unprecedented interest among buyers. If the market is regulated better, it will attract more buyers, sellers and artists and organically snuff out illicit trade.”

To plug some of the loopholes, the government is launching a National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities, tasked with documenting the antiquities and preparing a national database. The mission will also help establish provenance in the retrieval of smuggled antiquities, in addition to promoting public awareness and participation in the safeguarding of antiquarian wealth. A committee has also been set up to review museum security requirements for a comprehensive security policy.

Though these measures augur well for the future of Indian heritage, experts say there is an urgent need for more proactive measures, factoring in the needs of all stakeholders. As Ahuja explains, “Thieves may smuggle Indian heritage, but the inaction of policymakers can destroy it forever.”

Neeta Lal is New Delhi-based senior journalist & editor.