Written by Madhav Bahl, a grade 9 student.
The National Museum of Australia is returning 14 ancient and rare artefacts of Indian origin back to India. These artefacts had been stolen and now they are on the way back to the country that rightfully owns them. But this is just the tip of the iceberg of the massive theft and illegal trade of art and artefacts.
What is cultural property?
The heritage of a country is expressed in tangible and intangible ways: Language, folklore, dance, music are intangible expressions. Sculptures, art objects, architecture are tangible expressions and are called cultural property. India has a rich heritage that goes back thousands of years. Its art and artefacts are invaluable.
This makes them attractive to smugglers and robbers who have been illegally selling India’s precious heritage to collectors and dealers all over the world. Stolen sculptures and other artefacts find their way to private collectors and sometimes to museums. Over the years, there has been a growing concern to protect the cultural property of nations. The United Nations, under UNODC, has mandated increased cooperation among member states to stop trafficking in cultural property.
The case of the Australian acquisition
Recently, the National Gallery of Australia decided to return around 14 Indian artefacts that had been purchased from Subhash Kapoor and were found to be stolen and smuggled out of India.
Who is Subhash Kapoor?
A New York-based art thief, Subhash Kapoor owned an art gallery in Manhattan. He had been involved in smuggling antiques from India and neighbouring countries. He was captured for stealing an 11th century Chola bronze of Shiva from a temple in Tamil Nadu. This antique statue was sold to the National Museum of Australia.
Subhash Kapoor is right now behind bars in India. In a massive effort by the Indian government and the US government, codenamed Operation Hidden Idol, rare art and artefacts stolen by Subhash Kapoor and smuggled out of India were traced and evidence was gathered against Kapoor. Many of these pieces that were sold in the US have been returned to India.
The value of artefacts sold to the Australian Museum amounts to over $3 million. The National Museum of Australia is returning the stolen artefacts to India. The Museum’s director, Nick Mitzevich confirmed that artefacts sold by Subhash Kapoor will be returned to the Indian Government. It means a heavy loss of public money for Australia but governments are committed to putting an end to the robbing of cultural property of ancient civilizations.
What needs to be done?
The illegal antique market is big business. Countries need to have better policing and harsher punishments for smuggling of cultural property. But, many countries do not have the resources to protect their heritage. So, buyers, especially museums and galleries, need to investigate more thoroughly.