Earlier today (15 August), authorities of the United States government (US) handed over 10 heritage artefacts to India in a small ceremony.
Such marking of the Indian Independence day festivities with restitutions of heritage artefacts has begun to look like an annual tradition now — for the past two years, the Indian High Commission in London, too, has received such restitutions on 15 August (2018 – Nalanda Buddha, 2019 Chandavaram limestone pillar and Narthana Krishna Bronze).
But there is something quite unique in today’s restitution from the U.S.
Before getting into the details, it is important to say that India owes a great debt and thanks for the years of hard work put in these cases by Manhattan District Attorney’s office, including Colonel Matthew Bogdanos, Brenton Easter from US Immigrations And Customs Enforcement, and support from investigative journalists Jason Felch, Michaela Boland and the volunteers of India Pride Project.
Here’s why today’s restitution is significant.
First, of the 10 artefacts being returned today, there is not a single one directly associated with the notorious smuggler Subhash Kapoor (though there is an indirect and important link which we will explain).
Second, for the first time, we are seeing the US law enforcement openly disclosing the names of galleries and individuals from whom these artefacts were seized and the valuation of the artefacts.
In the past, such restitutions were token photo-ops with no names taken.
Therefore, such naming and ‘shaming’ is a welcome move.
Third, further, for the first time, we are seeing idols seized from Wiener galleries being restituted to India.
However, India has already received another Wiener linked artefact — the Gupta era seated Buddha sold by the gallery to the National Gallery Of Arts (NGA) for 1 million U.S Dollars (USD), its return was before Wiener was formally charged and was, therefore, considered a voluntary return (It was us along with Jason Felch and Michaela Boland who exposed the fake provenance of that bronze leading to the return).
The Nancy Wiener Gallery, run by Doris and Nancy Wiener, was a well known art gallery in New York.
According to The Antiquities Coalition, they were known to have kickstarted the market for South and Southeast Asian art. But that was before they were accused of buying smuggled art works and heritage objects.
Nancy Wiener was arrested in 2016 on charges of ‘illegally obtaining stolen cultural property via international smuggling networks and selling it on the art market by creating false provenance to hide their origins.’
The chargesheet showed that Doris Wiener (now deceased) was linked to many criminal smuggling gangs in India along with notorious smugglers such as Vaman Ghiya and Subhash Kapoor.
Sadly, the case seems to have hit bad roads. Museums, collectors and auction houses have not accorded the same interest to the Kapoor objects (another notorious smuggler) as to the Wiener objects.
Fourth, today’s return also taints the collection of a major Indian art collector, who, we understand, was appealing to the Archaeological Society Of India (ASI) to move his collection from London to another country.
We hope the ASI will take this opportunity to scrutinise his entire collection and their provenance papers.
Fifth, for the first time, there are no idols from Tamil Nadu in this lot, which is quite surprising, as there are still many artefacts from Tamil Nadu seized and in the process of retrieval in America.
But for too long have Indians seen idol theft as a Tamil Nadu-centric problem and that somehow the other states are immune to it.
Yes, Tamil Nadu has had its fair share of idol thefts and successful restitutions, but that has been possible because the state’s historical heritage has been better documented than other states.
The custodians and authorities have been living in denial about thefts in other culturally rich — yet not properly documented states. Today’s restitution is a wake-up call for the custodians and establishment to understand the pan-Indian nature of the collecting lobby and smuggling cabal.
Sixth, it is important to know that the majority of the smuggled art seizures were based on matches from ‘robber photos’ seized as part of Operation Hidden Idol.
This broke the back of resistance from other countries and organisations — in particular, Australia, which used lack of documentation as an excuse to hold on to unprovenanced antiquities.
They would return only those that source nations can prove to have been stolen with pre-theft in-situ photos after the 1970 UN statute.
The use of robber photos to stake claims has been very effectively used by Italy, but Indian law enforcement and custodians are yet to understand the importance of securing such archives via international co-operation.
The true extent of the rampant plunder of Indian artefacts will only be known when a more wider investigation is done and all countries recognise that robber photos are and should be used as evidence, and thereby crushing the underbelly of the illicit trade in cultural property.
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