• December 1, 2021

Explained: Why is the National Gallery of Australia returning 14 artworks to India?

These include six bronze or stone sculptures, a painted scroll, a brass processional stand, and six photographs. The entire collection is worth around $2.2 million (approximately Rs 16.34 crore).

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) will remove 14 works from its Asian art collection and return them to India, since they were stolen, illegally excavated, or unethically acquired.

These include six bronze or stone sculptures, a painted scroll, a brass processional stand, and six photographs. The entire collection is worth around $2.2 million (approximately Rs 16.34 crore).

How were these pieces acquired?

While one of the pieces was acquired from the late New York-based art dealer William Wolff, 13 were acquired from Manhattan art dealer and alleged antiquities smuggler Subhash Kapoor. They were all acquired by NGA between 1989 and 2009.

How will the handover happen? 

Whether the physical handover will take place in Canberra or India will be discussed over the next couple of months, depending on COVID-19 -related restrictions and the ability to travel.

“It’s unfortunate, and the institution is sorry for this development. We are doing all we can to avoid any future missteps of this kind,” said NGA director Nick Mitzevich. “It’s a historic issue… The NGA was part of an international fraud campaign that affected more than a dozen of the world’s leading institutions.”

What else is the NGA doing?

This is the fourth time the NGA has returned looted or illegally exported works, purchased from Kapoor. These include a $5 million, 11th or 12th-century bronze statue of Shiva, stolen from a Tamil Nadu temple and returned to India in 2014. In 2016, the NGA returned a stone sculpture of Goddess Pratyangira, and Worshippers of the Buddha, a 3rd-century limestone sculpture. And in 2019, a pair of 15th century stone door guardians and a 6th to 8th century stone sculpture of Nagaraj.

The NGA is now adopting a new provenance assessment that will consider both legal and ethical aspects of the history of a work of art. “If on the balance of probability, it is considered likely that an item was stolen, illegally excavated, exported in contravention of the law of a foreign country, or unethically acquired, the National Gallery will take steps to deaccession and repatriate,” said a statement by the NGA.

Who is Subhash Kapoor?

Kapoor, a dual citizen of India and the US established his gallery Art of the Past in 1974 and became a respected figure of the global art market, selling and donating works to several art institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, the Peabody Essex Museum, and more.

He was extradited from Germany to India by Interpol in 2012 and is in custody, charged with stealing and illegally exporting antique goods. If convicted, he could face a prison sentence of up to 14 years.

His seven co-defendants include dealers in Hong Kong and Singapore and art restorers in London and Brooklyn. They allegedly operated a network that had antiquities looted from all over Asia, with allegedly forged documents and ownership histories invented before going on sale at Art of the Past.

Kapoor allegedly masterminded the global smuggling ring between 1986 and 2016, trafficking over 2600 objects worth $145 million into the US.

The NGA is working to remove the final three works in its Asian art collection purchased from Art of the Past. “The changes we’ve made mean that we now have zero tolerance for any provenance inconsistencies for any acquisitions across the collection,” said Mitzevich.

What is India’s response?

The Indian high commissioner to Australia, Manpreet Vohra, welcomed the news. “The government of India is grateful for this extraordinary act of goodwill and gesture of friendship from Australia,” he said. “These are outstanding pieces. Their return will be extremely well-received by the government and people of India.”

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