Government in Hot Pursuit of Heritage Robbers

As India moves to recover 10 precious stolen antiques from international museums, difficulties reveal massive loot, toothless laws, poor documentation and a conspiracy by antique smugglers.

Published: 15th March 2015 06:04 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th March 2015 07:51 AM   |  A+A-

It all started with the Parrot Lady in Canada, a voluptuous woman with a parrot poised on her bare back. Her sculptured figure draped in exquisite garments clinging to her graceful limbs represents the feminine ideal of timeless Indian beauty. She is a life-sized 12th century Khajuraho sculpture which disappeared from India, nobody knows when, and surfaced in the Department of Canadian Heritage, in Edmonton in 2011. Mystery surrounds her appearance; the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) records reveal she was never reported missing.

budha.JPGThere is no evidence to indicate when she was stolen or how she went to Canada. On March 23, a three-member team comprising two senior ASI officials and one from the Geological Survey of India will leave for Edmonton to verify her authenticity. If the sculpture is proven to be a true antique, and not just a replica, arrangements will be made for her return home. The Canadian Heritage Department’s spokesperson Mahtab Farahani had said, “Canada would seek to return cultural property belonging to another state under the rules of the 1977 Cultural Property Export and Import Act.” This is not necessarily good news for ASI. Even if India doesn’t have to prove that it is the owner of the sculpture, Canadian law demands that records be shown that it was smuggled out of the country. L’affaire Parrot Lady shows the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in a poor light; in 2011, the Canadian Heritage Department informed the Indian High Commission in Ottawa, which dallied for over three years to inform New Delhi.  According to National Crime Records Bureau, 4,408 antique items were stolen from the monuments across the country during 2008-2012 but only 1,493 could be intercepted by the law enforcement agencies. It is feared that over 2,913 antiques have been shipped overseas to dealers and auction houses worldwide.  

Priceless antiques that are the iconography of a civilisation of over 5,000 years started their journey from the cradle of the Indus Valley. High rolling collectors with billions of dollars who live in high-security mansions are greedy to grab a part of the past and make it theirs. Gangs of unscrupulous smugglers who loot India’s heritage from the ruins of its monuments, the sanctum sanctorums of its ancient temples and heirlooms from palaces of old. And famous auction houses which can manufacture provenance and whitewash history meticulously for the sake of a discreet and wealthy clientele. Add it all together, and you get a picture of the loot of India’s antiques from all eras ranging from the Cholas and Guptas to the relatively recent Mughal period.


MONUMENTAL OBSTACLES: The curious case of the Parrot Lady is a classic case study that illuminates the difficulties India faces when trying to retrieve a stolen antique illegally sold abroad. Authorities haven’t been able to prove that she was indeed stolen from India, since no theft case has been registered concerning her. ASI’s Director Antiquity D N Dimri and Superintending Archaeologist Indu Prakash, along with a geologist, will try to convince Canadian authorities about the likely origin and authenticity of the statue.

After Canada, the next stop for the ASI would be in the US where three art works are now in possession of the Indian embassy. Two of these belong to Gadgach Temple at Atru in Rajasthan, while another is a Buddha, origin unknown.  “A team would soon be going to the US to verify these pieces. Moreover, there are five other cultural properties that have been identified as stolen from India namely the ‘Torso of Vishnu,’ a female figure from Baroli lying in the Denver Art museum, the Dancing Ganesha (a 10the century sand stone sculpture), Vishnu riding on the Garuda, Bharhut sculpture and Uma and Ganesh. “After getting information from respective archeological circles details have been sent to the Indian embassy in the US,” sources said. 

In the case of the Dancing Ganesha, Vishnu riding Garuda and Bharhut sculpture, ASI had written to S Jaishankar when he was the Indian Ambassador to Washington in July 2014, seeking his help in getting them back to India. With Jaishankar as the new Foreign Secretary, the ASI is now hopeful that the process would be speeded up. Ironically, when the Indian Consul, Trade, G Sreenivasa Rao told ASI about the “stolen” Uma and Ganesh sculpture in New York, authorities could not find any theft case registered in India.


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