Measures to protect India’s rich and varied heritage have been woefully inadequate. A Minister recently admitted to eight cases of theft of antiquities, as reported from government-protected museums and monuments across three states in 2018 while the pilferage and smuggling of art treasures from India continues.
The Global Financial Integrity, a Washington-based advocacy group, estimates that illegal trade in artifacts, paintings, and sculptures, are one of the most lucrative criminal enterprises in the world, estimated at $6 billion a year. India, with its ancient cultural heritage, bureaucratic apathy, and poor implementation of present antiquities protection laws, encourages pilferers adequate opportunities to plunder it’s past and remove art treasures worth billions from illegal sales.
India’s Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972 aims to protect all antiquities including stone sculptures, shrines, metals, terracotta, paintings on paper, jewellery, manuscripts, ivory, skin, wood, and cloth, over a hundred years old. The Antiquities Act requires that owners of such a rare art piece register them with the nodal agency Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), that is responsible for conservation of monuments, archaeological excavations, prohibiting export of antiquities and for the protection of heritage sites, while permitting it’s sale within India, when only under license. Jail sentences of up to three years, or a fine, or both can be resorted to. The Act mandates the State to acquire an object of art from its owner, even without any dependable assessment for a fair price, which does not seem unfair.
Indian antiquities worth billions are smuggled out/sold to private collections without proper documentation. In 2011, Subash Kapoor, owner of an art gallery in Manhattan, was nabbed in Germany and subsequently extradited to India on trial in Tamil Nadu. American authorities confiscated 2,622 items worth $107.6 million from storerooms in New York, describing him as the most ambitious antiquities smuggler in American history. Some American museums in Hawaii and Massachusetts also possess 8 rare artifacts pilfered from India. Indian antiquities regularly feature in scams involving the world’s two largest auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. Employees of these organizations, connive with Indian smugglers to peddle stolen artifacts at auctions. Even websites like eBay are selling Indian antiquities on-line.
India has documented only a few monuments and many are not under State protection. Hundreds of structures and buildings like the amazing gompas of Ladakh and the many temples in southern and central India, remain absolutely unprotected. Flaws in the existing laws ensure that most thefts go unreported. There are about 7 million antiquities in India and only 1.3 million are documented. The Comptroller and Audit General of India stated that ASI never participates or collects information on Indian antiquities sold at Sotheby’s and Christie’s due to lack of suitable provisions in the Antiquities Act, 1972. Incentivizing auctions, art fairs, and the art dealers will help to create a thriving domestic market as the art market generates tremendous interest from buyers. With better market regulations, more buyers are attracted and sellers / artists can snuff out illicit trade. To plug loopholes, a National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities, is documenting antiquities and preparing a national database besides establishing provenance for retrieval of smuggled antiquities, promoting public awareness and safeguarding our antiquarian wealth. A Committee to review museum security needs, for a comprehensive security policy, has been set up. Thieves may smuggle Indian heritage, but inaction by policymakers, destroys it forever.