Australia returned three ancient artefacts worth $2 million, which were stolen and smuggled out of the country, back to India
Ganesh Krishnan R
Extending a rare gesture of respect to our astounding culture and heritage, the Australian Minister for Arts Mitch Fifield handed stolen Indian artifacts back to his Indian counterpart Dr Mahesh Sharma at a ceremony at National Gallery of Australia (NGA) on September 19, 2016.
This return follows long-standing concerns raised by
civic-society about Australian museums’ acquisition policy. Anuraag Saxena, co-founder of India Pride Project (IPP), a
global-volunteer group, said, “We have been demanding that these idols be respectfully retuned to India, where they belong. It has been a long and tiring battle, and we are glad the Austrian government also feels the moral obligation to restore India’s heritage”.
The NGA had bought $11m worth of antiquities from the indicted dealer Subhash Kapoor (currently in police custody, undergoing trial in Tamil Nadu), including a 900-year-old bronze Nataraja for $5.6m in 2007. The Nataraja was handed back to PM Narendra Modi, by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott in September 2014, after members of the India Pride Project proved it was stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu.
In independent review earlier this year found that 22 of the 36 Asian art objects acquired by the NGA between 1968 and 2013 had questionable ownership history and 11 of those were considered to be ‘highly problematic’. Recently, two officials from NGA were fired for purchasing these idols without adequate safeguards.
Anuraag Saxena said, “While these one-off returns are welcome, we must not forget that thousands and thousands of stolen Indian artifacts are still abroad. For India to repair its reputation globally, we cannot be seen as weak by those that openly smuggle and trade in Indian heritage.”
Supported by Australian journalist Michaela Boland, famous art and antique bloggers Jason Felch and Vijay Kumar revealed the provenance documentation in 2013. All these documents and pictures were then matched to records existing with French Institute of Pondicherry which has done a fabulous job of documenting temples of Tamil Nadu.
These idols and their return are important for mainly three reasons. First, the returned idols are centuries old and have deep significance from a historical and social perspective. For example, the statue of Buddha is 2000 years old from the Kushan era and we don’t have too many artefacts left from that area. Secondly, the ‘Birth of Buddha’ sculpture is significant from a current perspective as it is from Amravati, the new capital of Andhra Pradesh. Thirdly, these idols are main evidence in the cases registered in India and can strengthen the prosecution of the accused who are presently in Chennai central jail. The judge has already ordered the Tamil Nadu police to produce this evidence. As it is the first significant heritage-crime before a court in India, the conviction is very important as it creates a deterrent for other heritage-criminals, Anuraag explained while talking to Organiser.
NGA director Gerard Vaughan observed that this new evidence means the NGA cannot legally or ethically retain these works, and returning them to India is unquestionably the right thing to do. Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Navdeep Suri commended the National Gallery of Australia for its approach to dealing with this complex and difficult issue. IPP has been tracking and
documenting stolen Indian artifacts that have been smuggled across the world. Some of these artifacts have been returned by USA, Canada, Germany, Singapore and Australia. Thousands of people showed support when IPP turned this information to a people’s movement through its petition and social-media campaign titled “#BringOurGodsHome”.