Debunking claims of the idol collecting lobby

It has also reduced the great works of our ancestors to showpiece curios and made the immovable movable and the priceless priced. 

Published: 27th March 2021 07:32 AM  |   Last Updated: 27th March 2021 07:32 AM   |  A+A-

Koshta murthis adorning an indoor swimming pool in an advertisement for a collection that was put up for sale by an auction house | India Pride Project volunteers

The collecting lobby has used clever subterfuge to make us believe that there is a greater purpose to “collections”, that they are fulfilling the higher motive of spreading connoisseurship and art appreciation. These new breed of art historians want the government to be concerned about access and not ownership, so that more can get the ‘richest aesthetic experience possible’! They are thereby pedalling the myopic and jaundiced colonial mindset that museums (encyclopaedic museums to borrow the popular term now) and private collections are essentially the only saviours of history and for them to exist and flourish, they are campaigning for an open, unpoliced, unregulated and undocumented trade in the sacred. 

The lobby has been engaging influencers in India, who have been trying to dilute the already toothless Antiquities and Art Treasures Act and create an “open market” for idols by dissolving the boundaries between the sacred and the profane, calling the sacred objects sensuous. Even an elementary scientific study of how these collections are put together shows that historical context has been destroyed for private greed and vanity, resulting in the destruction of our sacred sites. It has also reduced the great works of our ancestors to showpiece curios and made the immovable movable and the priceless priced. 

The rot in the system has gone so deep that a few years ago, the photograph of sacred koshta murthis adorning an indoor swimming pool was used by an auction house to promote the sale of a private collection. To see these Gods who lined the circumambulatory passage of our sacred temples for thousands of years reduced to being showpieces lining a pool is no way “blending the past to the present” as claimed in the advertisement. It’s dollar-driven greed that has destroyed the very essence of these sacred creations. Increasingly, the climate is changing in the Western world and they are now returning objects to their original abodes for them to fulfil the roles destined on them by the creators. On the other hand, in India, there is heavy lobbying to aid more collecting.

Below are the clever arguments being adopted by the collecting lobby to influence the ministry and public. Let me debunk some of the frivolous and sometimes blatantly false narratives to malign and dilute the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act.

1. ‘The Act is cumbersome as it classifies any object over 100 years old as an antiquity’: This is the international standard and Article 1(e) of the UN convention, which defines “cultural property” as antiquities over 100 years old.

2. ‘The Act calls for compulsory registration of dealers and antiquities and is a time-consuming process’: The registration form is a simple application that has to be filled with very basic details and a photograph. Regional registration centres were opened and are manned by specific officials with this task. Moreover with current IT-empowered technology, this can be further simplified. 

3. ‘The government can forcibly acquire any object by using this Act based on the registration process’: If and only if the Central government is of the “opinion that it is desirable to preserve any antiquity or art treasure in a public place, that government may make an order for the compulsory acquisition of such antiquity or art treasure”. The local collector is then empowered to take possession of the artefact but only after giving written notice to the owner. Further the owner has 30 days to file his objection with the government. From the time of the adoption of the Act in 1977, not a single forcible acquisition has been done and there has been no challenge. 

4. ‘The government will not pay the correct price for such acquisition’: The act clearly (Sec 20) talks of compensation—the first being the mutually agreed price and if no agreement is reached, the act provides for the appointment of an arbitrator (in the rank of judge of a High Court) and also the employment of the services of a domain/subject expert to assist in the process. 

5. ‘The government will acquire ancestral under-worship deities’:  The Act clearly exempts this as per Sec 19(7): “The power of compulsory acquisition conferred by this section shall not extend to any object, being an antiquity or art treasure, used for bona fide religious observances.”

6. ‘Once registered, an artefact cannot be sold within India’: Sec 17 of the Act clearly mentions that “whenever any person transfers the ownership, control or possession of any antiquity specified in any notification ..., such person shall intimate, within such period and in such form as may be prescribed, the fact of such transfer to the registering officer.”

7. ‘The Act was useless as it has not helped to curb smuggling’: This is true but the problem is not in the act but in the lack of clarity over the enforcing agency. The ASI is purely seen as a custodian of declared heritage sites and is not empowered with policing authority. 

8. ‘The Act could not even help register even 5% of antiquities in India’: This is true but once again the issue was not with the Act, which gave enough time for voluntary registration with bona fide credentials—as to how the dealer came in possession of the artefact. Unfortunately many of the current dealers operate in the grey. 

India could do well to look outwards at how other ‘source’ nations and ‘market’ nations are working towards strengthening the legal framework, laws and regulations to regulate this market for antiquities. We shall see them in the next column. 

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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