By: Neeta Lal

Behind the well-publicized move this week to repatriate as much as US$100 million worth of smuggled Indian antiquities from the US is a disheartening story of just how lax, if not outright incompetent, Indian authorities have been in guarding some of the country’s most precious treasures. Some 15 American museums this week are beginning the process of repatriating religious statuary, bronzes and terracotta pieces, some dating back 2,000 years.

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch handed back the means to repatriate more than 200 artefacts this week in a ceremony attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The recovery of the items is the result of a four-year rigorous US federal investigation named “Operation Hidden Idol” which blew the lid off a multi-million dollar smuggling racket involving notorious Indian antiquities smuggler Subhash Kapoor.

Dubbed “Indian Jones” by the US media, Kapoor is now awaiting trial in India on charges of trafficking the artefacts, looted from Indian temples, through his Upper East Side antiques business in New York. Among the pieces is also an idol of a Hindu mystic and poet, stolen from a temple in southern Chennai, valued at US$1.5 million. Another bronze sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesh is estimated to be 1,000 years old.

American authorities also confiscated 2,622 items worth US$107.6 million from Kapoor’s storerooms in Manhattan and Queens. They have described the art dealer — who owned an import company and an art gallery called ‘Art of the Past’ in New York – as the most audacious smuggler in American history. He has been charged with smuggling antiques from India with fake documents through a network spanning India, Pakistan, Dubai, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Cambodia and Bangkok.

While Operation Hidden Idol will help India recover its priceless treasures, it has also once again spotlighted the thriving and unchecked smuggling of Indian antiques, the result of a combination of an apathetic bureaucracy, ineffective laws and an entrenched officials-art dealers nexus.

Nor is this the first state visit that has highlighted the issue. Last April when Modi visited Canada, his counterpart Stephen Harper handed over the “Parrot Lady,” a 900-year-old sculpture pilfered from Khajuraho under a 1970 UNESCO treaty. In September 2014, during Modi’s visit to Australia,  then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott presented Modi a “Dancing Shiva” from the National Gallery of Australia and another statue from the Art Gallery of New South Wales as a “gesture of goodwill.” Both antiques were smuggled from India.

Earlier this month, investigation teams from Tamil Nadu seized antiques worth US$10 million from Kapoor’s house in Chennai. The raid also unearthed dozens of stone idols, paintings (some as old as 1,600 years) as well as an idol that was sold for US$3 million to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Australia in 2004.

Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based advocacy group estimates global illegal trade in paintings, sculptures, and other artefacts at US$6 billion a year. Experts say that even though India is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO treaty, which requires the signatories to return the smuggled artefacts of a fellow member, it is tough to recover the loot. According to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, between 208 and 2012 a total of 4,408 items were pilfered from 3,676 protected Indian monuments across the country. However, only 1,493 could be intercepted by police. Overall, around 2,913 items are feared to have been shipped to dealers and auction houses worldwide.

Indian antiquities also regularly feature in scams involving the world’s two largest auction houses – Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Employees of these organizations have been caught working hand in glove with Indian smugglers to peddle stolen artefacts at auctions. Even websites like eBay claim to be selling Indian antiquities.

Not limited to smuggling, neglect of Indian art is all-pervasive. Most of India’s over 3,700-odd protected monuments are badly vandalized. The state of Indian museums remains as dismal as highlighted in 2011 by UNESCO which published a scathing report on India’s top eight museums, citing sub-standard maintenance, lighting and signage, among other issues.

The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 aims to protect “antiquities,” an omnibus term that includes, among other items, sculptures in stone, shrines, terracotta, metals, jewellery, ivory, paintings in paper, wood, cloth, skin, and manuscripts over 100 years old.

However, experts say the act is deeply flawed. Its futility was demonstrated again when Canadian authorities realized that the “Parrot Lady” had been smuggled from India and wanted to return it. But India had nothing to prove that it had indeed been stolen from its shores, not even a missing report lodged in a police station. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), entrusted with the management of the Antiquity Act, didn’t even know it was stolen.

“Since 1987, different governments have been trying to amend the act,” said art conservationist Surendra Kulkarni, formerly with National Museum. “But even after several committees and consultations, the act remains as it is.”

Red tape, combined with a scarcity of skilled staff have impacted the act’s implementation, say experts. The Archaeological Survey too has been spreading itself too thin with numerous and onerous responsibilities of overseeing archaeological excavations, upkeep of heritage monuments as well as  protection of countless heritage sites that pepper this vast country of 1.3 billion people. According to the National Mission for Monument and Antiquities, there are approximately 7 million antiquities in India. But so far, only 1.3 million have been documented.

Art lovers say the Act has also made the registration of antiquities – vital for keeping tabs on theft – a cumbersome process. It mandates that all objects a century or more old be registered along with a photograph of the object. In cases of non-compliance, the ASI can even prosecute collectors. This draconian feature discourages antique lovers from coming forward to build private collections or even declare antiques, inadvertently encouraging antique smuggling. It has also killed domestic trade in art.

Hobbling conservation and protection further is the government’s lack of interest in working with private players, some of who are doing commendable work in the field like industrial titans such as the Tata and Ambani families, who run art trusts. For instance, government museums, which constitute 90 percent of the 1,000-odd museums that dot India, are banned from partnerships with private individuals/organisations, and have to depend on central funding even for day-to-day operations.

Where does the solution lie? Conservation, say experts, requires a multi-pronged approach. Apart from tightening its own act, the state also needs to build larger cadres of art historians, conservators and archaeologists to man important sites and museums and safeguard and maintain heritage. Incentivizing art fairs, auctions, and art dealers would also help create a thriving domestic market to deter smuggling.  

The government’s idea to launch a National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities, tasked with documenting the antiquities and preparing a national database, is a good one. The mission would also help to establish provenance in the retrieval of smuggled antiquities, in addition to promoting public awareness and participation in the safeguarding of antiquarian wealth. However, till more such efficacious measures are not pressed into service pronto, India’s rich past will continue to be plundered by others like the now-defeated Kapoor.