The colonial robbery

The history of the loot of Asian cultural treasures is long
The colonial robbery

A few months ago the Australian National Gallery returned thirteen artifacts to India. These had originally been, at a minimum, illegally taken out of India over the years. The Australian National Gallery had acquired them over a two-decade period beginning 1989 from an art gallery set up in New York by Subhash Kapoor who dealt in historically important artifacts, including statues, paintings, photographs and textile pieces. Earlier, during his visit to India in September 2014 the then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott handed over to Prime Minister Narendra Modi two famous Shiva idols which were smuggled out of this country and had been acquired by the Australian National Gallery and the New South Wales Art Gallery.

The Australians had projected the return of the idols as a goodwill gesture. The fact though is that all countries are obliged to cooperate, under United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO)’s 1970 Convention to prohibit and prevent the illegal trade in cultural artifacts. So, the Australians were doing India no favours but fulfilling an international obligation. However, it is in the nature of diplomacy to seek to take mileage out of steps which are mandatory!

Subhash Kapoor is in jail in Tamil Nadu since 2011. He is on trial in a number of cases for smuggling many important items of Indian heritage out of the country. In 1974 he established Art of the Past gallery in New York. He legally acquired and sold art works but his actual business was to deal in illegal marketing and sale of cultural items of great historical value and worth. Through the decades, it is alleged, that he became the centre of a vast smuggling network spread through many parts of south and south-east Asia. It is estimated that more than 2000 artifacts passed illegally through his enterprise and he earned a fortune of more than US $ 100 million. Many of the rich and famous were his clients as were numerous museums in the Western world. It is impossible to conceive the Western art world did not suspect the actual nature of his enterprise. Obviously, no searching questions were asked about how Kapoor acquired the artifacts and nor were certificates of provenance put to any forensic analysis. The greed to get hold of precious objects d’art overcame scruples.

In October 2011 Kapoor was apprehended in Germany on the basis of an Interpol red corner notice and extradited to India. Eight years later the New York authorities on the basis of a detailed investigation indicted him for criminal acts. In the process they identified many cultural objects that were smuggled out of various Asian countries and bought by individuals and institutions in the Western world through Kapoor. Clearly, these were stolen property and their possession by those who acquired them was illegal. How many of these buyers will come forth to return the artifacts to their countries of origin as the Australians are doing remains to be seen.

The history of the loot of Asian cultural treasures and their being taken to Europe and other parts of the Western world is long. It is embedded in the colonial experience. Western institutions are filled with priceless national treasure of the colonised countries. Whatever may be the political and legal justifications that are now advanced by the former colonial powers the fact is that they were in many cases acquired through conquest and chicanery. Even if they were purchased it can be safely asserted that the owners of these art treasures did not know their true worth. Thus, whichever way it is looked the cultural loss of the colonised countries has been immeasurable. It has amounted to a diminishing of their history. The sad fact is that the erstwhile colonial powers do not see the crime they committed and refuse to return them even where there is evidence to suggest that even their laws were broken in taking them out of the colonies.

It is true that the colonised countries were powerless to stop the exploitation of their cultural wealth by the colonisers. However, it is also true that after these countries became independent their governments did not show adequate alacrity in preventing their illegal exports. Where laws were passed, as in India, to prevent these priceless treasures from being taken out, they were so done late. Also, their implementation was lax. The fact that Subhash Kapoor was able to continue his network for so long shows that insufficient attention was given to the safeguarding national treasures. There now appears to be a greater awareness of the need to protect this heritage but much more is needed to protect them.

It would also be appropriate for India to take the lead to work with like-minded countries to examine the UNESCO 1970 Convention in order to make it more effective. In particular there is need to embed in international law that significant artifacts which were taken out of the colonies have to be returned by the colonists. This will naturally be greatly resisted by the old colonisers but it should be considered as part of the de-colonisation process.

This writer was posted in the Indian embassy in Washington DC in the mid-1980s. He recalls seeing an exhibition of Kashmiri shawls, mostly, jamawars, at the Washington Textile Museum in 1986. An online search for that exhibition proved rewarding. A report in the New York Times on the exhibition is available on the internet. The thought has endured that those pieces of our cultural tradition should never have left India’s shores.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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