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Inflated oz museum purchase prices fuel demand for our idols

We have seen how the market for Indian antiquities is not just demand-driven but is actually a derived demand in previous articles in this series on illicit trade in sculptures.

Published: 09th January 2021 07:32 AM  |   Last Updated: 09th January 2021 07:32 AM   |  A+A-

Christ crucified (possibly Goa)

We have seen how the market for Indian antiquities is not just demand-driven but is actually a derived demand in previous articles in this series on illicit trade in sculptures. The demand for robbing and looting sacred sites is dependent on the demand for unprovenanced antiquities by the ultimate consumers, the museums. Here, we delve further into the Australian system, which, with its unregulated purchases, has been a major contributor to this demand.

Strangely, this has not been picked up or covered by any of the due diligence or independent audits so far—surprising since the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) is government-funded. It is pertinent to point out at the outset that the NGA due diligence report clearly says: “The attached documents include the steps taken at the time of purchase and any further information discovered following (dealer Subhash) Kapoor’s arrest”; the Crennan report’s terms of reference in context seem myopic: “The TOR for the Review (of the NGA’s Asian Art Provenance Project) require an assessment of whether, on the basis of material provided, certain objects have ‘a satisfactory provenance’ and whether that material establishes when those objects ‘left the country of origin’.

” But it doesn’t comment on whether there is proof of legitimate export or even if the price paid is the market value (fair value). Even the most basic exponents of audit and finance would know the accounting guidebook definition of ascertaining the fair value price. There are just two simple questions. 1) Is there an active and open market? and 2) Are there current market selling prices or recent transaction prices for similar assets? Any purchaser of any object, let alone high-value idols and that too on government funding, would be expected to check at what prices similar objects were sold in recent years. The museum should have checked the “contemporary and historical art market for that type of object ... the price of the work of art relative to the established market.” 

Take the seated marble Jina purchased for $125,000 in December 2003 along with the marble arch (Mount Abu, Rajasthan). This is the provenance listed during purchase: “Bought in Delhi by Sudanese diplomat Abdullah Mehgoub between 1968 to 1971. … The sculpture had recently been published (a paid advertisement by the arrested Kapoor’s Art of the Past) in Arts of Asia, Volume 33. The Gallery sought expert advice from one of America’s leading experts on Indian Art, Dr Vidya Dehejia, who endorsed its quality and authenticity.” We have already seen how this provenance is dubious, that the same Sudanese diplomat’s name was used in the stolen and now-restituted Sripuranthan Nataraja’s provenance. The NGA due diligence said new provenance information was found after Kapoor’s arrest: “A comparable Jina was found in the sales catalog of Christie’s sale number 9481 (18 October 2002). Close examination suggests the NGA Jina is the same object…”  

The Crennan report blatantly errs on the date of auction. But the all-important detail is that the price the Jina fetched in that auction has not been mentioned along with the fact that there were no other comparable marble Jinas sold in the 24 months prior to the NGA acquisition. The Christie’s was an open auction available on a simple Google search: the Jina was sold for just GBP 4,465. The NGA acquired the Jina and arch for $125,000 within a few months. While we do accept there is some ambiguity over the price due to the clubbing with the arch, let’s see more examples of such financial impropriety. An ivory crucified Christ (possibly Goa) was purchased for $337,500 by the NGA in February 2007. The NGA due diligence lists as documents received at the time of purchase, the “copy of the page of the catalog for the auction at which the sculpture was purchased”.

Hoysala Saraswati (Karnataka). 

We now quote the Crennan report: “It was sold to Kapoor of Art of the Past in June 2006 at a Sotheby’s auction styled ‘The eclectic world of Edrie van Vredenburgh’.” It was auctioned on 6 June 2006 for just GBP 21,600, once again a price increase of almost 100 times in a few months! Were these irregularities only with purchases from Kapoor’s Art of the Past? No. The Hoysala Saraswati (Karnataka) was purchased from the art dealership Carlton Rochell Ltd., New York, for approximately $650,000 but is surprisingly not covered in the Crennan report. The published provenance says Carlton Rochell purchased it at the Pierre Berge auction, which sold it to the NGA. Conveniently, the price is omitted, but again a simple Google search reveals it was sold for 130,000 Euros on 12 June 2010.  

As we all know, the NGA restituted the stolen Sripuranthan Nataraja—purchased for $5 million, a price unheard of—but what is again not in public domain is how the deal was sweetened by a return gift for $323,000, albeit in a rather uncommon manner. The due diligence report mentions this in passing: “In addition to the works of art purchased from Kapoor, the American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia (AFANG) received a gift of 11 paintings and one chromolithograph from Kapoor’s daughter Mamta Kapoor.” The NGA audit report of 2008-09 says AFANG “has recently enjoyed the generous support of donors such as Mamta Kapoor…”, meaning the paintings were donated the same year of the monumental purchase of the Nataraja. AFANG is a charitable foundation in the US to enable taxpayers there to support the NGA and receive tax deductions there for such support.

So did the Kapoors not donate the paintings directly to the NGA and routed it via AFANG to claim tax benefits? The probe into the Art of the Past’s activities by the US Homeland Security’s “Operation Hidden Idol” has revealed an extensive collection of stolen paintings as well including some from prominent museums in India. Sadly India is just about working on the sculptures for now.
Lastly, a curveball, the case of the Pala Buddha. The Crennan report says “the object was given to the NGA in 1969 by the Indian government. Although not accompanied by any authorisation for export, it can be assumed to comply with any relevant legislation.

The object was apparently selected by the then PM, Indira Gandhi, and was presented by the High Commissioner for India in Australia to the Interim Council of the NGA.” Can the Indian government not check this? It is a pity that India has not been more diligent and forceful in seeking the return of clearly unprovenanced and stolen antiquities.

This is just the sampling of one museum’s collection and critical analysis of their lackadaisical due diligence. Such wanton inflationary purchases that go unchecked even after such scandals are subject to audits are why the art market doesn’t reform. Such purchases are not just a drain on the resources of a public-funded museum but directly result in inflating the benchmark pricing of similar antiquities in the global art market—thereby making the illicit trade more lucrative.

S Vijay Kumar (vj.episteme@gmail.com)
Co-Founder, India Pride Project and Author of The Idol Thief



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