ACM's return of 'stolen' statue raises questions about artefacts leaving India

The Asian Civilisations Museum has returned a "stolen" artefact to India. Arts industry insiders weigh in on the move and its wider significance

The Asian Civilisations Museum's (ACM) decision on Monday to return a sculpture to India identified as "stolen" caps a nearly two-year-long saga which puts two murky issues in the spotlight.

One is the due diligence of institutions acquiring such antiquities, but industry insiders tell Life the bigger issue is how easily these artefacts left India in the first place.

At the centre of the controversy - which has implicated pedigreed museums such as the National Gallery of Australia and the Peabody Essex Museum in the United States - is disgraced New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor.

The 65-year-old is currently in an Indian jail awaiting trial on charges of theft and smuggling artefacts amounting to more than $148 million.

The 11th-century bronze sculpture depicting the Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari that was returned by the Asian Civilisations Museum. -- PHOTO: ASIAN CIVILISATIONS MUSEUM

The Asian Civilisations Museum bought an 11th-century bronze sculpture depicting the Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari from Kapoor's now-defunct New York gallery Art of the Past for US$650,000 in 2007. It was one of 30 objects the Singapore museum had acquired from the gallery between 1997 and 2010.

It said on Monday that in keeping with international museum practices on looted objects, it was returning the Uma Parameshvari statue to India, following a confession by Art of the Past's gallery manager Aaron Freedman.

As part of a plea deal in Manhattan Supreme Court in 2013, he said that the statue is one of 150 stolen objects. None of the other 29 artefacts owned by the museum was identified in his confession.

Museum director Alan Chong, 52, who joined Asian Civilisations Museum in 2010 from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, tells Life: "The scale of the deceit was such that we had no choice but to return the artefact."

He says that museums worldwide struggle with such cases and Singapore has among the best international museum acquisition processes, which are reviewed every three years.

The proposal to acquire the statue was first discussed among the museum's curators, then vetted and recommended by the chief curator, museum director and the acquisitions committee comprising members of the museum's advisory board and external experts.

The final nod came from the chief executive of the National Heritage Board, which oversees the museum. The process has since been refined, and high value acquisitions will require approval from a three- person board.

At the time of purchase, the museum requested records of previous owners to validate the sculpture and was provided bills of sales and export documents.

The museum received an invoice certifying that the sculpture had been bought from a previous gallery in India in the 1970s, and also a letter of guarantee certifying its provenance and authenticity from Art of the Past. It later emerged that these documents were fabricated by Art of the Past.

Mr Ram Rahman, a New Delhi- based photographer, art historian and curator, says the trade in Indian antiquities has been known to be dubious for many years. The scores of sites without any protection across India, he says, became "the happy hunting grounds for dealers as the market expanded in the last 40 or so years".

He adds: "False provenances were easy to create and even established museums turned a blind eye in the competition to build collections. The issue of colonial loot is vexed."

Dr Chong says the museum takes the matter very seriously.

"We are conscious that public money is involved and we will take legal action to see what can be done to recover the cost." Looted objects, he adds, are not covered by art insurance.

Singapore-based collector Mary George Rajkumar believes the Asian Civilisations Museum has "standard stringent acquisition practices". She says: "Though it is painful to see the much-loved Uma leave, it is commendable that the ACM is doing the right thing."

Other experts say questions need to be raised in India about legal protection for artefacts.

Some experts point to the lack of Custom checks at borders and airports that allowed Kapoor to ship out artefacts with ease.

Several art experts point to other loopholes. For instance, India's Antiquities and Art Treasures Act protecting such works came into existence only in 1972 and there have been questions about provenance for many works that left the country before that and are sold in the international art market.

New Delhi-based writer, curator and art critic Ina Puri lauded the Singapore museum's decision to return the statue.

She adds: "Sadly, India's cultural policies and policy-makers are so preoccupied with other matters that unscrupulous art dealers manage to slip under the radar regularly. Fakes of masters and priceless antiquities abound and we wake up to the situation only when the media draws our attention to it."

She believes Kapoor was working with an efficient team who have yet to be identified or apprehended.

Mumbai-based art critic and writer Girish Shahane is vocal in his criticism too. He says: "Indians make sounds about the looting of our heritage, but we have no real interest in preserving it. There are dozens of old temples across our country that are falling apart."

He adds that there are other issues that need to be addressed. "None of our museums has produced a comprehensive list of their collection," he says.

Under India's Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, individuals must register their prized artefacts, but the government is under no obligation to compile a registered list of treasures.

Says Mr Shahane: "Until India's government becomes transparent about museum collections and being interested in displaying them publicly and genuinely devoted to their care, restitution will be little more than a political stunt."

The museum's 30 artefacts acquired from Kapoor cost a total of US$1,328,250.

Dating from the third to the 19th century, these include sculptures, paintings, architectural fragments, ancient rattles and manuscripts.

As the case against Kapoor continues, an 11th-century bronze sculpture of Shiva as Lord of the Dance, acquired by the National Gallery of Australia in 2008 for US$5 million and a 12th-century stone sculpture of Ardhanarishvara, acquired by Australia's Art Gallery of New South Wales for US$300,000, have also been found to have been looted and have been returned.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2015, with the headline ACM's return of 'stolen' statue raises questions about artefacts leaving India. Subscribe