Plunderers of Past Make Millions Through Legal Loopholes

Indian government agencies fear that over 2,913 antiques have been shipped overseas to dealers and auction houses worldwide.

Published: 15th March 2015 06:04 AM  |   Last Updated: 15th March 2015 11:09 AM   |  A+A-


NEW DELHI:Indian government agencies fear that over 2,913 antiques have been shipped overseas to dealers and auction houses worldwide. In a curious case, US-based art historian Dr Pratapaditya Pal informed the Indian Embassy in Brussels that he spotted a sculpture he believed was from the Sas Bahu Temple, Nagda in Rajasthan. When ASI officials visited Brussels in January last year to check, they had to return empty-handed since the Belgians were not very forthcoming. ASI again wrote to Pal in May last year to “intimate about the present location of the object to initiate retrieval of the same.” Meanwhile, the statue is still waiting.

DEAL FOR DEAL: In September 2014, visiting Australian Prime Minster Tony Abbot signed a nuclear agreement with India to sell billions of dollars worth of uranium. But what sweetened the deal was Abbot’s return gift—two stolen antique Indian Shiva sculptures handed over to his counterpart Narendra Modi. A 900-year-old bronze Nataraja, bought for $5 million by National Gallery of Australia in 2008, and 1,100-year-old stone sculpture of Shiva with Nandi bought by Art Gallery of New South Wales for Rs 280,000 in 2004 from New York-based art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is now on trial in Tamil Nadu for theft, marked the return of smuggled Indian art. As part of new-found bonhomie, Australians in January have also shown their willingness to return another 2nd century Buddha sculpture. But these are not the only ones. Through ASI and Indian embassies, the government is trying to get back 10 more “stolen” ancient sculptures lying in six countries.

In 2011, Kapoor, owner of the “Art of the Past” gallery in upscale Manhattan, New York, was arrested in Germany and subsequently extradited to India. It was only after his arrest that many of the buyers came forward to return them. Kapoor emerged as a leading art smuggler from India as he used to commission art thefts after getting orders from intermediaries who preferred to operate in the shadows. He is not the only one. Sanjeevi Ashokan, a native of Kerala had adopted a unique modus operandi of creating metal duplicates of stolen idols to get a handicraft certificates to shipping the real ones to Kapoor. Subsequently illegal export of several idols through separate consignments were made through an export company ‘Ever Star international Services Inc’ in 2006 for Kapoor’s Nimbus Export Inc in New York. The probe further revealed that Ashokan used to target ruined Chola period temples. During 2006-2008, 28 antique idols of Hindu deities were stolen and subsequently smuggled out of India to America using these handicraft certificates.

Similarly, a Dengapura Durga, a piece of sculpture stolen from the Kashmir valley in early 1990, was located in a museum in Germany. “The claim for its retrieval has been presented to the Minister of Science, Research and the Arts of the State Government of Baden-wiirttemberg, Germany by the Consulate General of India, Munich, Germany,” Culture minister Mahesh Sharma told Parliament last Wednesday. ‘Durga’ was also sold by Kapoor to be sold to the Lidden Museum.  Another artefact from Kapoor’s haul is the Chola bronze statue, which is now in possession of the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM), Singapore. ASI has requested the Singapore High Commissioner to take up the matter with ACM. While the ASI does not put a value of an antiquity unless it is temporarily exported for an exhibition, going by the rates ranging between $2 lakh and $50 lakh  at which Kapoor sold three antiquities to Australian museums, the cost of the 11 missing antiquities can be pegged up to $ 55 million. “We are trying hard to get these stolen artefacts back,” said Additional Director General B R Mani.

LAW IN MOTION: Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma told The Sunday Standard that the government was trying to get back art pieces,  which belong to India. “We will be framing guidelines to help prevent smuggling of these sculptures,” said he. Culture ministry officials said the government was in the process of drafting a new Antiquities Law to replace the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972 and Indian Antiquity Art Treasure Act. The work has been assigned to a retired additional secretary in ministry of Law and Justice. The amendments to the Act would be proposed after consultations with stakeholders, which to a large extent may prevent antique smuggling. The new law would encourage the domestic market to deal in antiquities.

HAPHAZARD RECORDS: According to the National Mission for Monument and Antiquities, there are approximately 70 lakh antiquities in India. But till March this year, only 13.03 lakh have been documented. According to the Cultural Ministry, 11 cultural properties have been trafficked from India in the last 10 years. The ministry told Parliament that in the last three years, 16 rare artefacts and idols have been stolen from the country, but only two have been recovered till last year. In 2014, three thefts were reported—a durga sculpture from Panchalingeswara Temple in Govindanahalli  in Mandya, a  granite Shivalinga from a temple in Thimmalapur, Bellary, Karnataka, and two wooden carved brackets from Vittalbhai Haveli, Kheda in Gujarat. Only the wooden brackets have been recovered so far. Five antique thefts were reported in 2012, of which four were from Karnataka and one in Chhattisgarh.  None of them have been recovered so far.

AN UNCOUNTABLE HAUL: While there may be thousands of Indian antiquities in foreign countries going by the collections of museums and art galleries, authorities say they can only act only if it is proven that they are stolen.

Says senior ASI official, “Most museums abroad say they have acquired the art works before 1970s, when the law came into being. Unless, there is a specific case that comes to our notice we cannot act.” ASI officials agree that problem is far more complicated. “Most of the thefts either do not come to light or are not known as all our heritages sites are not in the centrally protected list. Many of them come under the state governments, while many others remain undocumented,” a senior ASI official added. This has been the case with the ‘Khajuraho Parrot Lady,’ and Uma and Ganesh sculptures, where no theft cases or their exact location in India could be traced. “There is obviously a problem. When these articles are taken abroad, at least Indian Customs should know,” he added.

MURKY MALAISE: Of the 3,676 protected monuments, the smugglers usually target artefacts of Gandhara, Chola and Vijayanagara period that fetch more money in the international antique market which is estimated to be around $8-10 billion. Once stolen, the items are shipped to unregistered dealers abroad using the standard cargo route camouflaged as export items. While the dealers are responsible for creating fraudulent provenance of the stolen sculptures, some well known auction houses and galleries are said to be involved in selling stolen Indian antiques, despite having been sensitised on the issue by Interpol and FBI. “Everyone including buyers and sellers are aware that the property is not documented. In most cases, the documentation is cooked up to facilitate the auction,” an antique dealer said.

The world’s largest auction house, Sotheby’s, has faced similar problems, where its executives were accused of smuggling Indian antiques which were subsequently auctioned. Investigations had exposed a high-profile network between Sothebys and Indian antique smuggler Vaman Ghiya. Ghiya was part of a global racket involving art dealers and auction houses. During a search by the Rajasthan Police in 2003, sixty-eight catalogues of Sotheby’s and Christie’s were recovered. A witness admitted to investigators that he had packed thousands of antique sculptures for export abroad, of which some were shown in the catalogs. Surprisingly, even e-commerce website like eBay are selling what they claim are Indian antiques.

The Indian government, however, has not been able to do much. The Comptroller and Audit General in its 2013 report said, “We found that the ASI had never participated or collected information on Indian antiquities put on sale at Sotheby’s and Christie’s as there was no explicit provision in the AAT Act, 1972 for doing so.” The ASI agrees. “It’s only when someone points out that a particular art work was stolen that we can ask our embassies to stop these auctions,” a senior ASI official told The Sunday Standard. Meanwhile, history for sale goes on.

Stolen antiques India is trying to get back

■ Sculptures from Sas Bahu Temple, Nagda, Rajasthan, now in Belgium.

■ Dengapura Durga in Germany

■ Torso of Lord Vishnu located in USA

■  Sculpture of Gadgach Temple at Atru, Rajasthan, now in USA

■ Chola bronze statue, likely from Tamil Nadu, now in Asian Civilizations Museum (ACM), Singapore

■  Khajuraho parrot lady , now in Edmonton, Canada

■ Female figure from Baroli in the Denver Art Museum, USA

■  Dancing Ganesha and Vishnu riding on Garuda, now in USA

■  Bharhut Sculpture; Uma and Ganesha now in from USA

Who is Subash Kapoor?

Plunderers.jpgThe 65-year-old kingpin of the international racket of antique smuggling, according to the Tamil Nadu police, had widespread network across India, Pakistan, Dubai, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Combodia and Bangkok.

Born in Delhi, Kapoor migrated to the US in 1974, set up a private museum, ‘Art of the Past’, and another export company ‘Nimbus Import Inc’ in New York. He visited Tamil Nadu whenever he came to India. In September 2005, Kapoor last visited Chennai, stayed at a five-star hotel and met his Indian contact Sanjivi Asokan, from Kerala. Asokan used to purchase new metal idols similar to the stolen one and get a handicraft certificate from Assistant Director, Handicraft Development Office, Ministry of Textiles at Chennai. These were exported from Chennai harbour.

Police traced that Asokan was paid dollars equal to an amount of Rs 1.16 crore from Kapoor’s account in HSBC Bank, New York. Ironically, in many cases, the thefts were noticed after two years. After Asokan’s arrest in 2009, police wrote to CBI-Interpol to recover all the eight stolen idols from New York. Kapoor was detained in Germany in 2011 and extradited to India in 2012. He is currently lodged in Phuzal jail, Chennai. Some of stolen idols were found to have been sold to various museums and art collectors in USA, Brussels, Singapore and Australia.

The Land of Treasures

■  According to National Mission for Monument and Antiquities, India has approximately 70 lakh antiquities

■  Till now, only 13.03 lakh antiquities have been documented

■  3,676 ASI-protected monuments across the country

■ Major demand for sculptures belonging to Gandhara, Chola and Vijayanagara period

■  International market of antiques estimated to be around $8-$10 billion.

■ 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

■  Around 2,913 antique items are feared to be shipped to dealers and auction houses worldwide


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