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Art thief Subhash Kapoor’s case, in the fall of 2011, sheds light on how many Indian artefacts on display in museums across the world, including idols from temples in Tamil Nadu, were stolen. Some of the most well known of such stolen idols include those in museums in Australia, the US, the UK and rest of Europe, Singapore and so on.

Since then many have argued that all Indian artefacts, especially idols from Tamil Nadu temples, should be returned by foreign museums. Called restitution, this is a complex topic that involves a range of subjects such as museology, crime, art market, police investigations and so on.

Vinod Daniel, Chairman, AusHeritage and Board Member, ICOM

Artefacts in museums hold tremendous cultural and educational significance. They can serve as a window to the world for local communities. In a previous article in inmathi.com, Vinod Daniel, Chairman, AusHeritage and Board Member, ICOM, discussed how museums should display artefacts so that they can truly engage and educate the community. In this Q & A, he talks about restitution policies.

How do museums acquire artefacts? Is theft an integral part of acquisition?

Any museum has collections that are local, collections that are national, and those that are international. From the Louvre in Paris to the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, all have collections of artefacts from other countries.  In addition, there are international travelling exhibitions so local populations get access to various cultures.

Objects may have been donated to museums in some cases. Some objects were moved to museums abroad before Independence. In some cases, when a senior British government official moved back to the UK, he or she took artefacts that were part of his/her personal collection in India.

Any object that is older than 100 years needs to be registered according to Indian law. There should be documentation showing origin, age, ownership and so on. This also applies to objects in our own house.

The law is very clear. If an object is stolen or taken out of India after the cut-off year, then the rightful thing is it should come back.

If objects were taken out of India without right documentation and the theft was reported, museums will not purchase the objects. If it’s Syria or Afghanistan, the international community has been warned that the objects are very likely stolen, so ten times more diligence is required.

Museums did trade in human remains. This happened due to an interest in science. Interestingly, I recently came across correspondence between the Egmore museum and Australian authorities where the former was asking for human remains of aborigines.

Correspondence between Egmore museum and the Australian authorities in 1935 regarding trading of human remains

The current thinking is that there’s no place for human remains in museums. We need to have respect for human remains. There is a global movement that human remains should go back to their place of origin. It started with Native American Indians demanding that the remains of their ancestors in museums should be buried honourably.

If objects were taken out of India without right documentation and the theft was reported, museums will not purchase the objects. If it’s Syria or Afghanistan, the international community has been warned that the objects are very likely stolen, so ten times more diligence is required

Another category of objects is those that were taken during the colonial period. There’s an interesting debate on the requests for return of those objects. The Benin artefacts are a case in point of what has been called the right of return

Museums do differ in how ready they are to give back artefacts

Some museums have a good repatriation policy. For instance, some have a policy of returning something of strong cultural, religious significance, ie for worship and so on.

A majority of the objects in museums form permanent collections. They are part of the public programmes and help to educate local communities. Some have come as short or long-term loans.

There could be some objects with significance that need to go back so museums should look at the ethical aspect of having them even if they have rightful ownership. This is a contested area. Even within countries, there are tussles.

Many of these stolen idols that museums bought were not listed in police databases nor Interpol. As a result, theft needs to be established, proof is required, then the museum will return the piece. The National Gallery of Australia has returned almost all artefacts it bought from Subash Kapoor

As far as theft of idols from India is concerned, many people misused their access to temples and made a lot of money. They tricked museums by first donating to prominent galleries which gave them some credibility. They played the game. They also came up with a lot of documentation. And some museums were in a hurry to buy them and expand their collections.

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Many of these stolen idols that museums bought were not listed in police databases nor Interpol. As a result, theft needs to be established, proof is required, then the museum will return the piece. The National Gallery of Australia has returned almost all artefacts it bought from Subash Kapoor.

What have museums learned about purchasing Indian artefacts, particularly idols from Tamil Nadu?
Museums have learned not to purchase without doing due diligence and enough time being spent on the purchase and on validating sale documentation. They should work with the authorities in countries of origin. But, overall, because of the idol theft and restitution cases, there is a pause in the purchase of Indian art. The trade will resume but with much more stringent guidelines.

In the case of Subhash Kapoor, many others were involved. There were many conduits. Some idols were moved to houses and then shipped. No museum will ever keep an object if it knows it was stolen. We have to prove it was taken illegally.

But what this also taught us is that we in India should work hard in ensuring that our artefacts and temple idols are not stolen and leave the country. We have to do our due diligence, too.


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