A close-up look at Asian Civilisations Museum artefacts from disgraced New York gallery

Museums worldwide have been rocked by the ongoing scandal of a disgraced New York gallery, accused of trafficking in millions of dollars' worth of stolen artefacts.

Until recently, Art of the Past and its owner, Subhash Kapoor, were well-regarded dealers of antiquities who sold works of art to collectors and art institutions, including the National Gallery of Australia and Singapore's Asian Civilisations Museum.

Two of the 30 artefacts it sold to the Singapore museum have been named in ongoing court cases in the United States as antiquities that may have been sold illicitly. The rest of the 28 artefacts in the museum's collection, however, have not been cited in any court cases. Neither have the American or Indian authorities approached the museum with any request for information or assistance in their investigations.

The museum says it will take all necessary steps, in accordance with international laws and practice, to return any objects that are proven to be stolen or looted.

We zoom in on four artefacts bought by the Asian Civilisations Museum from the disgraced New York gallery:

What: 11th-century bronze statue of Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari

How much: US$650,000 (S$816,854)

History of the artefact: This well-crafted sculpture was added to the museum's collection because it reflects the heritage cultures of Singaporeans. The statue dates from the 11th-century Chola civilisation in south India, which is the homeland of many Indian immigrants to South-east Asia, including Singapore.

The artefact was acquired in 2007 after a year-long evaluation by the museum. This included checks with the Art Loss Register, one of the world's largest private database of lost and stolen art and antiques; the statue did not pop up in the search.

The museum also requested records of ownership to validate the sculpture and was provided bills of sales and export documents. The papers showed that the work was in the private collection of an individual in the 1960s before it was sold to a dealer and then to another private collector before ending up with the gallery. The museum tried to trace the most recent owner, but the search led to a dead end with no results.

Just months after its arrival in Singapore in 2007, the statue went on display as one of the highlights in the museum's exhibition, Beauty In Asia: 200BCE To Today.

What: 18th-century gilded Virgin Mary and Christ altar

How much: US$135,000

History of the artefact: This intricate altar from Goa, India, was bought by the museum in 2009. It has not been exhibited here. It is alleged that documents on its origins were forged by the gallery.

What: 10th- or 11th-century stone sculpture of Nandi

How much: US$55,250

History of the artefact: This stone sculpture is on display in the museum's South Asia gallery. Nandi is the bull mount of the Hindu god Shiva.

What: Mid 19th-century painting of Jain Tirthankara

How much: US$35,000

History of the artefact: This painting depicts Tirthankara, human teachers of the ancient religion of Jainism from India, which believes that the way to liberation of the soul and immortality is a life of renunciation and doing no harm.

lijie@sph.com.sg

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