As the recoveries and returns of stolen idols continue apace, due to efforts of the civil society India Pride project, many more museums will be looking to make entries in the loss columns of their accounts books. Victims or perhaps villains?
In September 2015, the National Gallery of Australia’s (NGA) independent review into its 2008 purchase from Subhash Kapoor of the stolen Sripuranthan Shiva Nataraja concluded that the NGA had been the ‘victim of a well-planned fraud by Art of the Past’. Well, true enough, the fraud was certainly well-planned, and well-executed too, but it was a fairly transparent one and should not have fooled experienced museum professionals. Shady art dealers are not in the habit of offering stolen objects for sale with honest accounts of their theft and trafficking. Lies and forged provenance documents are the order of the day.
The NGA visited Kapoor’s New York Art of the Past gallery in 2007 to view the as yet unpublished and previously unknown Shiva Nataraja. Kapoor produced three fraudulent documents purporting to show that a visiting diplomat had purchased the Nataraja in India in 1970 and had taken it with him when he left India in 1971, and that the diplomat’s widow had sold it to Kapoor in 2004. The NGA came away sufficiently convinced by this minimal account of provenance to authorize the Nataraja’s purchase the following year for $5 million. Was the NGA a victim of Kapoor’s scheming? To answer that question, it is worth remembering what was happening in 2007 in the wider world of art trafficking and museum collecting. In August that year California’s J. Paul Getty Museum agreed to return 40 objects that had been stolen and trafficked from Italy. The previous year, for similar reasons, the Boston Museum of Fine Art had agreed to return 13 objects to Italy, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York a further 21. All these pieces had been acquired with a respectable provenance. All had been stolen and trafficked. All were ‘well-planned’ frauds, and widely publicised as such, and yet the NGA does not seem to have been paying attention, or else believed itself unsusceptible to such dishonest trading practices. And then it fell for exactly the same scam.
It is ethically incumbent upon museum directors and their curatorial staff to conduct rigorous due diligence while investigating the offered provenance of a potential acquisition. But in March 2014, the Australian Arts Minister said with regard to the Shiva Nataraja that the ‘due diligence standards of the NGA … were not in my view sufficiently complied with on this particular occasion’. In other words, the NGA had been negligent in its duty to validate the provenance of the Nataraja, and in consequence had purchased a stolen object for $5 million. Was this really the act of a victim, as the NGA’s review claimed, or was it instead an act of institutional hubris by a rich and powerful national gallery? Yet while the NGA was lax in its conduct of due diligence, it was sharp enough to obtain a warranty of good title as part of the purchase agreement. In February 2014, it used the warranty to initiate legal proceedings in the USA against Kapoor for recovery of the purchase price, claiming that he had ‘fraudulently induced NGA to acquire the Shiva by making misrepresentations and false assurances concerning the history of the Shiva’. In September 2016, the Supreme Court of New York ruled that the NGA should receive $11 million in compensation for its lost purchase price, plus an equivalent sum on top for unspecified costs and losses. Why the NGA should be awarded recompense for its own shoddy due diligence and general negligent engagement with the realities of the art trade, particularly as the real victim, the community of the Sripuranthan temple, has been offered no compensation, is anybody’s guess. Avaricious institutions such as the NGA should be left to suffer the consequences of their hubris, and the cost of their nemesis. In the meantime, as the recoveries and returns of stolen idols and other objects continue apace, due to efforts of the civil society India Pride project as much as to law enforcement or officially mandated cultural agencies, many more museums will be looking to make entries in the loss columns of their accounts books. Victims or perhaps villains? Time will tell.
(The writer is a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford. He has been researching the trafficking of cultural objects for twenty years and has published many books and papers on the subject)