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An auction house dealer and a Pallava lion in New Zealand

A trial court had noted that Bruce Miller, an US  antiquity dealer working for Spink & Son, was involved in the smuggling case and though he was called a proclaimed offender, no action was taken.

Published: 30th October 2021 01:19 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th October 2021 01:20 AM   |  A+A-

A Ganesha idol in the garden of the same art dealer in Marlborough, New Zealand (L) and the necklace stolen from a Nepal temple

A Ganesha idol in the garden of the same art dealer in Marlborough, New Zealand (L) and the necklace stolen from a Nepal temple. (Photo| EPS)

We now look at another failure of the Indian legal system wherein due to their myopic attitude and procedural lacunae, the custodians of our antiquities not only failed to secure the conviction of Indian smugglers but also let go of a golden opportunity to prosecute Spink & Son, a prominent antiquities dealership in London.

The case Arun Gupta vs State (CBI) pertains to a customs seizure of a shipment of five antiquities on 1 May 1992 at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. It went on criminal appeal and the verdict setting aside the trial court conviction was delivered on 22 July 2014.

The facts of the case are pretty straightforward. The Delhi firm Nova Fashions, through customs shipping bill no. 19082 dated 30 April 1992 presented by Arun Gupta, was alleged to have presented the consignment of six packages containing the aforesaid items before the authorities as filed by the customs house agent. The antiquities were to be exported to the UK. 

When checked, the consignment was found to contain three antique items: 

  1. Part of a pillar depicting dharmachakra and other decorated motifs.

  2. Part of a pillar depicting a stupa and other decorated motifs. 

  3. Seated Jain Tirthankara in dhyana mudra on a pedestal.

The trial court had noted that Bruce Miller, an antiquity dealer from the US working for Spink & Son, had conspired with Gupta in trying to export the items. Though Miller was called a proclaimed offender, no investigation was initiated or action taken against him by the authorities!

For those who are new to the antiquities trade, Spink & Son was a "premier" art auction house/ dealership for over three centuries before it was acquired by the famous Christie's auction house in 1993 (a year after the Delhi seizure). Even though Christie's should have the bookkeeping records of Spink, it has been adamant and not put it out in the public domain. Yet, Christie's frequently sells artefacts with a Spink & Son provenance on its platform and chooses not to reveal past that. In a recent report based on the Pandora Papers on Douglas Latchford, the famous art dealer indicted for smuggling artefacts, the Washington Post reported that according to US prosecutors, a "Spink & Son representative was aware of the plans to create false documentation for Khmer antiquities".

Now our work with like-minded friends in Nepal has recently revealed the hand of Bruce Miller in the sale of the Taleju Temple necklace. Provenance records mention that it was sold by Bruce Miller Antiquities of Sausalito in California on 22 June 1976 to the Alsdorf Foundation - the very year that the necklace was believed to have been stolen in Kathmandu. As reported by Nepali Times, "Sweta Gyanu Baniya, an assistant professor at Virginia Tech University, recently visited the Art Institute of Chicago and was appalled by what she saw. Among them was an intricate gilt-copper necklace stolen from Kathmandu's Taleju Temple 45 years ago."

So what did India do with the case against Miller and Spink? Nothing. And the exporter was released of all charges. Let us see why.

In the first instance this seizure itself was a chance occurrence due to the diligence of customs inspector Narayan Singh, who stopped the shipment just before it was being loaded. It had previously been cleared by a Customs assistant commissioner without verification.

A point to note here is the records are scanty, but the norm in these cases would be to do an audit of all past shipments of the same exporter and importer to arrive at the scale of the smuggling operation. But for some reason the case was restricted to just this shipment.

The then deputy superintendent archaeologist of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at IGI Airport, D V Sharma, examined the objects under reference and declared that five pieces were suspected to be antiquities. He then referred the matter to the director general of ASI for expert advice. It now gets complicated. In his cross-examination, he admitted that out of the five pieces which he suspected to be antiquities, two were found to be non-antiquities by the director general.

This is where the case derailed. To prove that these five items included three antiquities, the prosecution was to examine Dr IK Sharma, Director General, ASI. Despite ample opportunities, the court noted that the "prosecution could not secure the presence of (IK) Sharma" and he "could not be examined by the prosecution or cross-­examined by the accused as to his opinion contained in his report that three items, out of the five sent to his office, were actually antiquities". So one of the main reasons that the case failed was because someone in the position of DG ASI couldn't turn up in court to defend his identification.

Bruce Miller and his wife Jane Casey were active in the art market for many decades and lived in Thailand before purchasing a sprawling estate with a vineyard in Marlborough, New Zealand in 2009 and naming it Bhudevi. It was put up for sale in 2019 and a description in a New Zealand real estate site read: "Their years immersed in Asian culture also influenced what they did to make the home their own, adding Indian sculpture features in the garden, and decorating the house with their Asian art."

It is disturbing that our sacred murthis including a rare 8th century Pallava lion pillar and Ganesha are "sculpture features". Perhaps the Indian government can wake up, take efforts to verify their provenance and look at bringing them back from New Zealand, while we work on the scores of artefacts that have gone via this route out of India - for instance, a dharmachakra in New York's Met Museum with a 1963 Spink & Son provenance from Andhra Pradesh.

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

(The writer is co-founder, India Pride Project and author of The Idol Thief. He can be contacted at vj.episteme@gmail.com)



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