Doubts raised over Indian artworks at two top Australian galleries | Asia Pacific

Doubts raised over Indian artworks at two top Australian galleries

Doubts raised over Indian artworks at two top Australian galleries

Updated 11 October 2013, 13:05 AEDT

Two prominent Australian art galleries are investigating whether sculptures in their collections were originally looted from India.

The National Art Gallery in Canberra has for the past few months been examining whether more than a dozen sculptures purchased from a disgraced New York art dealer were in fact stolen from temples.

And now Indian police have confirmed that a statue in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney is stolen.

Presenter:Bill Birtles

Speaker: Vijay Kumar, a Singapore-based art enthusiast and blogger who has been key campaigner for tracking down sculptures allegedly looted from India


BIRTLES: The 1.1 metre tall granulite statue of an androgenous form of the Hindu deity Shiva is at the centre of the latest allegations of artworks in Australian galleries that were stolen from India.

The New South Wales Art Gallery isn't commenting, but Indian police have for the first time reportedly confirmed that the one-thousand-year-old statue was looted from a temple in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.

Vijay Kumar is the art enthusiast and blogger who first recognised the statue in June this year, when a picture of it was included on a website documenting suspected looted artworks.

'This particular form is a very popular form of Shiva, which is actually a complex form. One half is the male part of this, the other half is his female counterpart, so it's an androgenous form, male on one side, female on the other'.

He says he first saw a photo of the statue taken in 1974 in a book by Douglas Barrett, which contradicted the documentation that the gallery had.

KUMAR: Thankfully the gallery was forthcoming in putting up all the background papers, which showed that it was bought in Dehli in the 1970s. Obviously the United Nations statute which says that any cultural artefact that has been illegally brought out before 1970, it's OK, meaning it can't be touched, but if it was after 1970, the gallery is supposed to return it without compensation to the home country. So obviously this fake provenance, as I would say, was created with a pre-1970 date to get around this rule. So to me it was a dead giveaway, because I know when Barrett visited India in 1974, he took a photo of this particular sculpture in the temple, so that's how I made the link'.

BIRTLES: The New South Wales Art gallery is cooperating with an international investigation not just into that one sculpture, but into hundreds of works sold by a New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor.

He's awaiting trial in India, having been arrested two years ago in Europe.

The Australian National Gallery in Canberra is also in the midst of trying to ascertain the origins of several works it acquired from Kapoor, in particular an 11th or 12th century bronze sculpture of Shiva allegedly taken from a disused temple in Tamil Nadu.

The NGA isn't commenting, but in a statement issued back in June, the Gallery said it exercised probity and due diligence in relation to the acquisition, and its checking processes found no issues of concern.

Reports say Subhash Kapoor's trial in India will begin soon.

Vijay Kumar believes the statues end up being traded by international art dealers after being stolen by local thieves.

KUMAR: They took photographs, send it to the gallery owner, and he says 'OK, take it', and I think they pick and choose by reading old published masterpiece books, because in terms on books, most of these have been studied extensively. So I think they looked at similar pieces in smaller temples, and they compare it for artistic value, so it was a targeted loot. They did send the photographs of bronzes on the floor in house, so the middlemen or the guys who actually broke in, took photographs and send them to New York for pre-clearance before shipping out'.

'These bronzes especially to us are embodiments of God, and in these temples when they're under worship, the statues are treated as gods, they are woken up in the morning, they are bathed, they are clothed, they are fed, they're sung lullabies, they are living gods, and then to see them put up in a showcase like some artefact, it's not right, especially because they are under worship. And the most pertinent question is unless galleries are forced to return them without compensation, I think they'll continue to be lax about certification, and that will encourage the looters to continue to loot'

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