Blood antiquities from Kashmir in a New York Museum

For a more detailed perusal of the New York museum’s collection of Kashmiri artefacts, we split their collection into those from the ‘gifts’ of the mathematician Samuel Eilenberg and the rest.

Published: 26th March 2022 12:32 AM  |   Last Updated: 26th March 2022 10:24 PM   |  A+A-

What does Kashmir, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, an indicted art smuggler and Kamadeva have in common?

Kamadeva sculpture from Kashmir purchased by the Met museum from indicted art smuggler Subhash Kapoor’s gallery.

In 1993, the Met Museum purchased a sculpture of the God of Love from Art of the Past, which was run by Subash Kapoor, who was later charged with art smuggling both in the US and India. Nevertheless, the museum continues to display it even now despite all that has happened since Kapoor’s arrest in Germany in 2011.

It doesn’t stop at that and there are other cases where the same museum continues to display antiquities sourced from art dealers who were later indicted. In 1991, it purchased a Gandhara door guardian (4th century CE) from Doris Wiener with no provenance listed. Doris Wiener has since died and her art gallery business has passed to her daughter Nancy Wiener, who has been formally charged for cultural property theft in the US.

For a more detailed perusal of the New York museum’s collection of Kashmiri artefacts, we split their collection into those from the ‘gifts’ of the mathematician Samuel Eilenberg and the rest.

Eilenberg amassed an art collection worth more than $5 million and his obituary in The New York Times says: “The works were made between the 3d century BCE and 17th century CE in Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Nepal, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Central Asia. The collection came to be valued at more than $5 million. In 1987, he gave more than 400 artefacts from the collection to the Metropolitan Museum, which put on a show of holdings from his collection, ‘The Lotus Transcendent: Indian and Southeast Asian Art From the Samuel Eilenberg Collection’, in 1991 and 1992.”

These are his gifts. Not a single artefact has any clear provenance or even a mere date of acquisition. The documentation of the show by the museum through a book showers praise on his collection without saying anything about the acquisition process.

The museum’s publication says: “Private collections are almost always personal and idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, relative to each individual, certain constraints exist. It is a truism that, subject to practicalities, serious collectors acquire the objects whose aesthetic qualities they admire and to which they respond both intellectually and emotionally—thus, they honour and pay respect to the cultures and artists responsible for producing the works of art. In this, Samuel Eilenberg is no exception. And rather than admiring these cultures from afar, Eilenberg has made innumerable trips to India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Thailand to carefully study their museums and monuments.”

One passage struck me in particular: “While the provenance of most of these works of art can be deducted from formal characteristics and other evidence, a few are so unusual that their places of origin remain somewhat speculative.” As a professor and world-renowned mathematician who travelled extensively to visit museums in the source nations to understand these cultures and context of their objects, one would think he would definitely have retained purchase records, legitimate receipts and export permits. Nevertheless, the publication, despite all its tall claims, is starkly empty in its use of the word ‘provenance’. And the fact that many of these source nations had cultural patrimony laws during this period is conveniently forgotten.

Let’s look at the case of India. The Antiquities (Export Control) Act, 1947, clearly states under Section 3, Prohibition of Export: “No person shall export any antiquity except under the authority of a licence granted by the Central government.”

If indeed, as per reports, the collections were formed after 1950, surely the collector or the museums should have at least a single export licence?

What is also interesting is that this was no gift—for there is an element of reciprocity. “In return for his generosity, the museum raised most of the $1.5 million necessary to create the Samuel Eilenberg Visiting Professorship of Mathematics at Columbia,” the NYT adds in its tribute to him.

Now let us look at the non-Eilenberg artefacts in the museum from Kashmir. A rough sampling of 25 of them show that except for a single artefact, none have even a pre-1975 provenance. Even that single one is listed as a gift of Ben Heller, in 1970. Heller was the same infamous dealer who trafficked the stolen Sivapuram Nataraja and sold it for a million dollars to the Norton Simon museum in 1972.

In 1991, the museum received a Vaikunta Vishnu (late 8th century CE, Kashmir) as “a gift from Rossi & Rossi Ltd.” and no other details are given. In 1989, it acquired a 7th century CE Ekamukalinga (Kashmir) from John Siudmak Asian Art, London, again with no provenance listed. Other antiquities from Kashmir on display at the Met Museum include a panel from a Portable Shrine: The Descent of the Buddha from Trayastrimsha Heaven (7th–8th century, till 1979 with Spink & Son Ltd. that was later absorbed into Christie’s auction house), four-armed Goddess, possibly Sarada (9th century CE, was with Perry and Basha Lewis and donated in 1984), mask of Vaikuntha Vishnu (late 5th century, donated in 2004), Shiva and Parvati with their sons Karthikeya and Ganesha (9th century CE, donated in 1989), diadem with Kinnaris (half-bird, half-female creatures, 9th–10th century CE, donated in 1988) and Gaja Lakshmi (8th century CE, donated in 1989) among others.

Buddha’s descent sculptures from Kashmir now in the same museum. They too lack proper provenances.

The acceptance/purchase and continued exhibition of unprovenanced Indian and in this case Kashmiri artefacts by The Metropolitan Museum goes against Indian and international legislations aimed at combating illicitly trafficked antiquities, especially from conflict zones. These are not just conflict antiquities but blood antiquities.

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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