Sarosh Bana For The Straits Times

How the Asian Civilisations Museum got caught up in a global scam

Widespread turmoil in civil war-torn Middle Eastern and African countries has led to thievery from cultural sites

One positive result of the warming relationship between India and Australia has been the return of priceless antiquities to India that had ended up surreptitiously in Australian art galleries.

This month came news that the Australian government will return a stolen Kushan-period Buddha statue dating back to the second century BC that had surfaced in Canberra's National Gallery of Art (NGA) in 2007.

Canberra's decision was prompted by New Delhi's complaint that the red sandstone Buddha, originally from the northern region of Uttar Pradesh, had been stolen and sold fraudulently to the Australian authorities.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott heeded the long-pending request from India. During his state visit there last September, he handed over to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi two antique statues of Hindu deities stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu that had wound up in Australian galleries, including the NGA.

One sculpture was of Ardhanariswara, which represents Shiva in half-female form, and dates back to the 10th century. The other was of Nataraja, the dancing Shiva, belonging to the Chola dynasty of the 11th to 12th century.

The bronze statue of Nataraja was acquired by NGA in 2008 for US$5.1 million (about S$7 million) from Subhash Kapoor, who ran the Art of the Past gallery in New York.

Kapoor, an American citizen born in India 63 years ago, was arrested in Germany in 2012 and extradited to India on charges of burglary and smuggling of Indian antiquities.

There is also a warrant for his arrest in the United States on charges of possessing stolen property, with investigators having seized more than US$20 million worth of Asian antiquities from storage units in Manhattan linked to him. Many were found to have been looted from temples in India.

Flourishing trade in plunder

The Ardhanariswara stone statue was purchased for about US$280,000 by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 2004. "Returning the sculptures is a testimony to Australia's good citizenship on such matters and the importance with which Australia views its relationship with India," Mr Abbott's office has said.

While the move made for warmer Australia-India ties, the repatriation of the stolen Indian antiquities puts the spotlight on a larger issue: plunder of such historic artefacts.

The illicit trade in cultural property has been flourishing.

In 2007, seeking to tighten its legislation on the protection of cultural objects, the German government noted that although it is "common practice for museums not to purchase cultural objects of indeterminate provenance", the fact remains that "illegally excavated or illicitly exported cultural treasures are still being bought and sold".

Widespread turmoil in civil war-torn Middle Eastern and African countries like Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Libya has led to the plunder of cultural sites.

India has a particularly high stake in this issue. It has an extraordinarily rich and diverse cultural heritage in the form of built heritage, archaeological sites and ruins since prehistoric times.

A lot of this invaluable heritage was carted away to England as spoils of the empire during the British rule over India between 1858 and 1947. The most remarkable was the diamond named Koh-i-Noor (meaning Mountain of Light in Persian), once the largest diamond in the world. It was installed in a temple of a Hindu goddess as one of her eyes. Alas, today, this stone is set into a crown worn by the late Queen Mother and which is now on display in the Tower of London.

If Ms Kate Middleton, wife of Prince William, who is second in line to the British throne, eventually becomes queen consort, she will wear the crown on official occasions.

To its credit, the Council of the National Gallery of Australia has initiated an independent review to address provenance issues involving its Asian art collection.

Provenance is the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a historical object.

Following a meeting last November, the council appointed an independent reviewer to report on the interpretation of relevant cultural laws (Australian and country of origin), and revised the gallery's due-diligence procedures to align them with federal guidelines.

It also launched an NGA website provenance project for listing, and seeking further information about, all imaged sculptures from South Asia and South-east Asia which the gallery is researching.

The NGA's Asian art collection holds about 5,000 items. A preliminary internal assessment has identified 54 significant South Asian works, now public on its website, for which further information and documentation are sought. The gallery expects detailed research of this kind to take several years.

However, criminologist Duncan Chappell from the University of Sydney's Law School reckons the gallery could have been more pre-emptive. Its suspicions about the art works' antecedents should have been aroused before acquisition, because obtaining any Indian antiquities was in itself "always a highly hazardous position" in view of the antiquities laws prevalent in India. A 1972 Indian law states that any object over 100 years old must be registered - so that its location is always known - and cannot be exported.

In the case of Kapoor, he used his gallery website, since closed, to highlight the many prominent museums he used to deal with. These included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California.

Indeed, Singapore's prestigious Asian Civilisations Museum, too, has been caught up in the scandal. It was a client of Kapoor, reportedly having bought 30 works of art from him between 1997 and 2010. On-going court cases in the US revealed that at least two of these items bought for a total of US$785,000 may have been stolen. These include a gilded altar of Christ and the Virgin Mary from Goa, dating from around the late 18th century and acquired by the museum in 2009 for US$135,000.

Lack of documents

The documents provided by the Art of the Past gallery on the altar, which was not displayed in the museum, were found to be forged.

The other item was an 11th century bronze figure of the Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari, which the museum bought in 2007 for US$650,000 and which may have been lifted from a temple in Tamil Nadu and freighted secretly to the US.

The museum, run by Singapore's National Heritage Board, said it had made "all possible checks" on the provenance of the two artefacts that deemed them to have been "legally and ethically acquired". It said it was monitoring the court proceedings in the US and would fully cooperate with the foreign authorities in any investigation.

The only really comprehensive study of provenance undertaken was in 2000 by British archaeologists Christopher Chippindale and David Gill. They systematically reviewed the reliability of claimed provenance in the catalogues of seven important international collections of antiquities.

They found that as much as 75 per cent of the 1,396 objects they reviewed had no documented provenance whatsoever. Over 500 of the antiquities did not have any "object history", which meant they appeared for the first time in those public exhibitions, underscoring the fact that they were sourced from clandestine excavations.

The two researchers also found that items whose excavation sites had been specified as "unknown" in earlier exhibitions, had on subsequent occasions been assigned to particular origins, an indication that their provenances were forged.

In the case of the Kushan Buddha, Kapoor had misled the Australian authorities into believing that the idol had been purchased from a British collector in Hong Kong. In fact, the New York-based gallerist had travelled to India and acquired two Kushan Buddhas from a trafficker.

With trafficking becoming more common, treasure-hunting collectors and galleries owe a moral responsibility to society - and to their own trade - to be more sceptical and more rigorous in checks, to ensure they do not participate in a plunder that impoverishes cultures.

The writer is the executive editor of Business India in Mumbai.