There is a certain arresting appeal in the art of the Imperial Cholas. Their technical brilliance and artistic prowess when seen in isolation will never suffice, for their true magnificence is in the delightful confluence of devotion, spirituality, art and aesthetics seamlessly interwoven into the fabric of worship. No museum or art gallery can recreate this unique flavour that invades you while viewing Chola temple art in its womb—in and around the sanctum sanctorum.
They were not created by the original donors to decorate the bedrooms of Hollywood’s rich and famous. What then fuelled this obsession for collecting them in the West, thereby reducing the sacred bodies of our Gods into sensuous showpiece curios? The credit goes to art historians. In this article, we are not just looking at the role of art experts as validators but as value creators, not just catalogue writers but market catalysts. They work in expanding the market, wilfully ignoring clear red flags and certify objects, creating provenance—record of ownership—where none exists.
They use their mastery of flowery language and author monographs using undocumented antiquities from private collections, hiding the real ownership. Some have even received a Padma award for their “outstanding contributions” to Indian art. In describing the role of experts in their book The Illicit Trade in Art and Antiquities, law professor Janet Ulph and barrister Ian Smith say: “In relation to artistic matters, people’s preferences are strongly influenced by institutions or persons who collectively possess a monopoly in relation to taste.
In relation to antiquities, the contributions of archaeologists can heighten interest in material from a particular country or period of history.” In other words, the expert’s opinion is not just affecting the valuation of an art object but is introducing and inducing taste, thereby creating the very market. Here is an example where a celebrated art historian, who has been awarded the Padma Shri, admits to this in his own article about how the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) acquired “a group of four bronzes of impressive size representing Krishna Rajamannar (The Cowherd King), his two spouses Rukmini and Satyabhama and his ‘lear-jet’ the Garuda bird”.
He recollects lamenting to a dealer about the omission in LACMA’s portfolio of any significant example of a Chola bronze. So the next day, the said dealer produces this rarest of rare Krishna group! How the art expert describes it made me realise the enormity of the issue: “They had the usual accretions from being buried in the ground but I could visualise the forms underneath,” he says. This is a huge red flag as it is a clear indication of a buried hoard, hidden underground by the erstwhile custodians to safeguard their Gods from pillaging iconoclasts in early 14th century CE in Tamil Nadu.
The expert further talks about haggling over the cost—$150,000 (“not a huge price”). The dealer tells him, “Believe me, the owner needs the money but if I had the time to clean these guys up, I would ask double the amount.” No discussion on the provenance! The Indian Treasure Trove Act of 1878 clearly says anything over 100 years of age found buried under the ground is the property of the Government of India. The key question of legitimate export from India and the actual date are till now not revealed by the expert or LACMA.
What is even more surprising is the evidence that the bronze was cleaned after acquisition in the museum’s conservation department. It is pertinent to point out that two famous Natarajas who are celebrated for their restitution to India in the 20th century, Pathur and Sivapuram, were both in buried hoards and were sent by their respective Canadian and American buyers to London for cleaning and chemical treatment— where they were confiscated by the police based on the evidence of being freshly off the soil. The next example shows how experts colluded to authenticate a purchase by fabricating provenance just by word of mouth.
This pertains to the Nataraja in the Freer Gallery of Art (in picture) purchased from the Doris Wiener Gallery in 2003. It’s pertinent to point out that Doris Wiener has since died and the business has passed to her daughter Nancy Wiener, who has been formally charged for cultural property offences in the US. The case is under trial. The Nataraja’s published provenance: “According to Doris Wiener, she purchased the sculpture from Rajrama Art Galleries in 1972.” In her letter to the Freer Gallery curator, who is an art expert and Padma Bhushan awardee, Wiener wrote, “The sales invoice from the London dealer, Rajrama Art Gallery, from whom I acquired the sculpture.
The invoice is dated 10 March 1973. Please note that I viewed and purchased the piece in London in 1972, several months prior to the date of purchase on the invoice.” Notice that though the invoice is supposed to be dated to 1973, Wiener claims to have purchased it in 1972. The year 1972 was when the UN statute on antiquites came into force, which an art expert would certainly be aware of. Yet this expert ignored the serious provenance red flag, pushing back the proof outside India. The gallery of which she was the curator purchased the Nataraja just based on the dealer’s word.
The provenance then takes an interesting turn. According to the Curatorial Justification written on 19 June 2002, “The bronze has been in the collection of Doris Wiener Gallery in New York City since 1973; Dr ***** (art expert) saw it at the gallery at that time.” Incidentally this is the same Padma Shri awardee who helped with the LACMA acquisition mentioned earlier. So basically a magnificent Chola Nataraja is said to have been with Wiener galleries from 1973-2003 and was never published, exhibited or sold except for the word of the dealer and the expert.
The curatorial justification claims the “Director General of Archaeology of India during those years has examined the Nataraja and assures us that it is not among those bronzes reported as stolen from TN temples”. The gallery even gets the designation of the Indian expert, who is supposed to have assured them of the idol’s status, wrong. We can now confirm that this Nataraja was stolen from a temple. In situ photos while still in the temple have been made available and restitution claims are in progress.
Let us look at the National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) acquisitions from the now arrested dealer Subhash Kapoor. The due diligence report submitted by the NGA to the Australian Minister for the Arts on 6 March 2014 says it received an expert letter about the quality and authenticity of two sculptures—arch of a Jain shrine and a seated Jina purchased in 2003—from Kapoor’s Gallery. The expert is the Padma Bhushan awardee referred to earlier.
The provenance lists the previous owner as Raj Mehgoub. She is supposed to have received them from her Sudanese diplomat husband Abdulla Mehgoub, who purchased it between 1968 and 1971. The exact same fake provenance was provided for the now recovered Sripuranthan Nataraja from the same gallery.
These are only a few examples of the many cases where the role of experts has come under scrutiny. India has, for a generation, due to the pursuit of financial stability, neglected studies of the arts; we look up to the work of these celebrated scholars. But these experts appear to have traded their knowledge for personal growth and rewards. They have created a grey market for movable antiquities in the guise of academic studies into Indian art and nurtured it by valuing and authenticating the “merchandise”—our Gods.
S Vijay Kumar
Co-Founder of India Pride Project, which has helped bring back many stolen idols