Will India learn from west or succumb to pressure?

The UN Statute has so far flattered to deceive, hamstrung by the opaqueness of the art market and the sinister cabal that wants it to remain that way.

Published: 22nd April 2021 07:38 AM  |   Last Updated: 22nd April 2021 07:38 AM   |  A+A-

The 1972 Antiquities and Art Treasures Act does allow for sale of registered antiquities within India but imposes certain controls.

The 1972 Antiquities and Art Treasures Act does allow for sale of registered antiquities within India but imposes certain controls.

For years, countries like India, Italy and Egypt rallied the world and the UN to stop the rampant looting of their cultural treasures and to shed the tag “source nations”. The strong premise was that “history belongs to its geography” and in 1970, the UN Statute brought some respite though the “market nations” took their own sweet time to sign on. The UN Statute has so far flattered to deceive, hamstrung by the opaqueness of the art market and the sinister cabal that wants it to remain that way.

We have seen in previous columns how through a combination of clever subterfuge and strong lobbying by some academics and scholars, the art market has defied any attempt at policing the trade. This has meant that nations, both at origin and destination, do not even recognise that they have a problem, let alone create effective art crime teams within their law enforcement. This is again used by the collecting lobby to put up dismal seizure numbers, dispute crime statistics and thus actively stonewall any decent attempt to bring much needed transparency to this grey trade. Thus the art market, despite regular sales running into many billions, was the least studied, if not policed, of any mature trade, so much so that there are no clear statistics on the volume, turnover or even disclosure norms for buyer/seller names. 

In today’s market, KYC norms are the base for any transaction in India—from obtaining a SIM card to registering any sale. But the art market cabal seems to have successfully lobbied the Union culture ministry to dilute an already toothless antiquity act to allow or promote “a free market for antiquities” within India. The 1972 Antiquities and Art Treasures Act does allow for sale of registered antiquities within India but imposes certain controls.

Apart from the basic guidelines to register any antiquity over 100 years with the ASI, the law prescribes the norms for becoming authorised dealers, which include maintaining mandatory sale and purchase and stock registers. The collecting lobby seems to have somehow convinced the ministry that this is draconian and is attempting to do away with a gatekeeper (in this case, the prescribed officer of ASI) who conducts an inquiry before registering an antiquity and instead replace it with an online portal. Further there would no longer be any requirement to secure a licence as authorised dealers; rather anyone can “freely” trade in antiquities!

What’s startling is during the same period, Western countries—long maligned for turning a blind eye—have woken up and are bringing in tougher measures to regulate the art market. But more importantly, why are they doing it? 

In sheer numbers, the EU (before Brexit) and the US are estimated to account for over 56% of the global art and antiquities trade. In early January, the US Congress voted to apply banking regulations to the antiquities market. The key reasons as cited in the New York Times report are startling: “Regulators have long worried that the secrecy of the antiquities trade, where buyers and sellers are seldom identified, made it an easy way to launder money.” The US regulators also want to extend this into the general art market as well if its commissioned study finds similar links as in the antiquities market to “organised crime, terrorists, oligarchs using cultural artifacts to move illicit funds”.

The US has implemented this despite lobbying. For instance, the NYT report says, “Federal disclosures show that the auction house Christie’s has paid lobbyists more than $100,000 over the last two years to influence the outcomes.”

While the actual details are still some months away, in essence the intent is to put the onus on dealers and auction houses—basically sellers—to demonstrate due diligence, and create capabilities to spot red flags and report them to law enforcement who then can see if they are indeed suspicious and open further enquiry. The other important compliance that was opposed tooth and nail by the art market cabal was disclosure of buyer/seller details—a long-held bastion of the art world as part of some strange client confidentiality clauses. 

The US regulators cleverly used the argument of how non-conformity with this would lead to the continued use of shell companies to conceal the identities of buyers and sellers.What this effectively means is the end to possibly the best (worst) joke in the art market when antiquities are routinely sold by auction houses with the provenance reading “Private collection of a Swiss gentleman” (the sculpture in the picture for instance).

How about the EU? In April 2019, the European Council adopted new rules after almost a three-year struggle. These will effectively clamp down on illicit trafficking in cultural goods—one of the main requirements being the need to obtain import licenses on artefacts. The reasons that swung the majority EU members to adopt the regulation was the need to design rules to “ensure the effective protection against illicit trade in cultural goods and against their loss or destruction” and for “the prevention of terrorist financing and money laundering through the sale of pillaged cultural goods to buyers in the Union”.

The new rules apply to the import of cultural goods from outside the EU, with a specific requirement: importers have to provide proof that their goods were legally exported from the country of origin and only then can they obtain the special license for EU importation. Further the information on such imports will be stored in a centralised electronic database that will be available to all national authorities in the EU.

Sadly as part of its post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union, the UK has rejected the new EU Rules—especially the import licensing regulations imposed by the EU notwithstanding that they were designed to safeguard cultural heritage from illegal trafficking. This is not surprising since the UK is known as a major gateway for looted and smuggled art. Despite the famous Sotheby’s expose in the 1990s by journalist Peter Watson, the UK art market cabal has successfully lobbied its government claiming the new regulation would “cause great damage” to the art market. Whether anyone even has any data to what the size of this market is and what kind of revenues these sales yield in the way of taxes to the UK are uncomfortable questions that no one wants to ask. 

It is time India wakes up and stops giving into the paid lobbyists to put a price tag on its heritage in the guise of free trade. Let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater and for once look at how even the Western world has realised the shady nature of the antiquities trade.

S vijay kumar

Co-Founder, India Pride Project,and Author of The Idol Thief

(The India Pride Project’s #BringOurGodsHome initiative has helped bring many stolen 
idols back to our country) 


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