The National Gallery of Australia, in what can be considered one the single largest repatriation of art, has decided to return 14 artefacts of cultural significance to the Indian government. The 14 artefacts being repatriated includes six bronze or stone sculptures, a brass processional standard, a painted scroll, and six photographs. The collection is worth about $2.2 million (approximately Rs 16.34 crore). Some of them date back to the 12th Century.
The artworks, which are part of the gallery’s Asian collection, includes one object acquired from an art dealer named William Wolff and 13 objects connected to the notorious artefact smuggler Subhash Kapoor, who at the moment is awaiting trial as he is accused of running a global smuggling ring for artefacts through his “Art of the Past” gallery, informed the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
The National gallery’s decision to return these artefacts was taken as they believed that six of the 13 artefacts obtained from Subhash Kapoor were stolen or obtained through illegal means from India. The rest, they decided to return on doubts over Kapoor’s practices.
Three more sculptures that were also sourced from Kapoor’s ‘Art of the Past’ gallery have been removed from the collection. The gallery asserted that further research will be undertaken to identify their place of origin before repatriating these artefacts.
Nick Mitzevich, director of the NGA, said the repatriation effort was the result of the NGA’s new provenance assessment framework and as the first outcome of this change, the gallery will be returning 14 objects from the Indian art collection to their country of origin. “This is the right thing to do, it’s culturally responsible and the result of collaboration between Australia and India.” asserted Nick Mitzevich.
Mitzevich added that the terms of the physical handover of the artworks will be discussed over the next couple of months.
Meanwhile, India’s High Commissioner to Australia, Manpreet Vohra, has welcomed Australia’s decision to hand back the works to India, where it originally belonged.
“India is grateful for this extraordinary act of goodwill and gesture of friendship from Australia,” Vohra said, adding that these are outstanding pieces and its return will be extremely well received by the Government and people of India.
Reportedly, both India and Australia are party to the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property.
Prior to this, the Australian government, in November 2019, had announced to return three culturally significant artefacts, a pair of ‘Dwarapala’ (door guardians) from Tamil Nadu and one ‘Nagaraja (serpent king)’ from either Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh, purchased from idol smuggler Subhash Kapoor during Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s visit to India in January 2020.
An investigation into the National Gallery’s Asian Collection by former Australian judge Susan Crennan in 2015 had found 30 such ‘problematic’ artefacts, including the three idols which were returned in January 2020. As per media reports, all of them were sold by Subhash Kapoor. Kapoor is facing charges for trafficking antiquities worth over 140 million USD.
Besides this, on various previous occasions, Australia has repatriated Indian artefacts to India.
It is notable here that hundreds of priceless ancient idols and artefacts have been smuggled out from India over the decades. Many renowned art galleries and auction houses have been known to receive such items through middlemen and antique smugglers.
In fact, the Tamil Nadu govt’s idol wing led by AG Ponn Manickavel has been working tirelessly to bring back these stolen idols from various countries.