Australia to Return 14 Artifacts ‘Looted’ From India

In its single largest repatriation of art, The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra decided to return 14 works from its Asian art collection objects to the Indian government. Keeping in mind the Covid-crisis, they will negotiate the physical handover of the same over the next couple of months.

Thirteen of the items purchased between 2002 and 2010 from ‘Art of the Past’, the now-infamous Manhattan gallery, were led by the disgraced dealer and alleged antiquities smuggler Subhash Kapoor.

Kapoor has been accused of leading a trafficking ring that looted thousands of artifacts. The late New York-based art dealer William Wolff in 1989 bought the remaining ones.

These artworks are worth nearly USD 3 million (INR 222619500.00), and the collection is composed of “religious and cultural artifacts”. Donors were not involved in the acquisition of the fourteen NGA works in question.

Some of these artifacts date back to the 12th century. They include six stone or bronze sculptures (dating back to the 11th or 12th century), six photographs, a painted scroll (or vijnaptipatra, from Rajasthan dated around 1835), and a brass processional standard (or “Alam”, from Hyderabad dated 1851).


Dancing child-saint Sambandar of 12th century belonging to Chola dynasty being returned to India

NGA Returning Illegally Obtained Works from Subhash Kapoor to India

This is not the first but the fourth time the NGA has returned to India looted or illegally exported works purchased from Kapoor and his associates. First, in 2014, the then-prime minister Tony Abbott handed the bronze sculpture of Shiva as Lord of the Dance- Nataraja to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a visit to New Delhi. It is one of the twenty-one works the gallery acquired from ‘Art of the Past’, which had been looted from a temple in Tamil Nadu in south India.

Later in 2014, the National Gallery of Australia launched its Asian Art Provenance Project. This was to help identify the origins of objects in its collection. It returned to India an 11th- or 12th-century Chola-period bronze which was purchased in 2008 for 5.6 million USD (415800280.00 INR). Along with this, he also returned a sculpture the disgraced art dealer- Kapoor had sold to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.


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Two years later (in 2016), two sculptures- one of Goddess Pratyangira and the other of Worshippers of the Buddha that were acquired through Kapoor left the museum’s holdings for India. The sculpture of the Goddess is a 12th-century stone sculpture from Tamil Nadu and the latter a third-century limestone sculpture from Andhra Pradesh.

The artwork ‘Letter of invitation to Jain monks’ will be among those returned to India by the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: NGA via EPA-EFE

And in 2019, the gallery repatriated three more sculptures. One was a pair of 15th-century stone door guardians, or dvarapala, from Tamil Nadu. The second, a sixth- to eighth-century stone sculpture, the serpent king, or Nagaraja, from either Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh.

The National Gallery of Australia has spent 10.7 million USD (795882050.00 INR) on twenty-two works from Mr. Kapoor’s “Art of the Past” gallery over several years.


Who is Subhash Kapoor?

Subhash Kapoor, a dual citizen of India and the US, established ‘Art of the Past’ in 1974.

He became an influential and respected figure in the global art market and was a celebrated donor of art and the toast of openings in New York and other major art capitals. He was also selling and donating works to many prestigious institutions.

Kapoor’s clients included the famous Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, Massachusetts), as well as the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, the NGA and the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Australia).

A portrait of a woman at the National Gallery of Australia that will be returned to India. Photo: NGA via EPA-EFE


Charges against Subhash Kapoor

This disgraced art dealer was extradited from Germany to India by Interpol in July 2012. He is in custody charged with stealing and illegally exporting antiquities, and if convicted, he could be jailed for up to 14 years.

In July 2019, the Manhattan district attorney’s office filed a criminal complaint against Subhash Kapoor and seven co-conspirators. Their charges include – eighty-six counts of grand larceny, possession of the stolen property, and conspiracy to defraud.

His co-defendants include dealers in Hong Kong and Singapore as well as art restorers in Brooklyn and London.

They have allegedly operated a sophisticated network that saw antiquities looted from a number of countries. These countries include Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Thailand.

Antiquities at the ‘Art of the Past’ were allegedly placed on sale with forged documents and inventing ownership histories.

The ‘Arch for a Jain shrine and Seated Jina’ is among the artworks to be returned by the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: NGA via EPA-EFE

details of his smuggled goods

The alleged mastermind behind the global smuggling ring between 1986 and 2016 is Subhash Kapoor, who has been trafficking more than 2,600 looted objects worth USD 145 million (INR 10779205750.00) into the US.

These seized artifacts are from storage locations he rented throughout New York, though the whereabouts of most of the looted works that allegedly passed through his hands remain unknown.

On July 21, 2021, ARTnews reported that one such restorer- Neil Perry Smith, a British antiquities expert, was charged in New York with possessing 22 looted objects valued at USD 32 million (INR 2379201600.00 INR).

The gallery is still trying to retrieve the money it paid to Mr. Kapoor. And although some lawyers say there is no guarantee the NGA will ever receive the money, it was awarded damages of $11 million by a New York court in 2016.


The NGA taking responsibility and Repatriating artworks 

NGA’s announcement of returning the artifacts comes as the gallery adopts a new provenance assessment that will consider both the legal and ethical aspects of a work of art’s history.

Mr. Mitzevich said former High Court Justice Susan Crennan conducted two separate reviews. She had helped the gallery develop new frameworks which would help ensure it did not purchase stolen artifacts.

“We are taking responsibility for works that have entered the collection,” Mitzevich said. “We have taken that period seriously and have made major changes to the way we acquire works.”

According to ARTnews, the National Gallery of Australia is deaccessioning more works. Once they review their provenances, these may also head back to India.

“The changes we’ve made mean that we now have zero tolerance for any provenance inconsistencies for any acquisitions across the collection,” Mitzevich said.

The NGA states it will initiate steps to deaccession and repatriate the work if, on the balance of probability, it is likely that work was –

  1. Stolen,
  2. Illegally excavated,
  3. Exported in contravention of the law of a foreign country, or
  4. Acquired unethically.

The artwork ‘Manorath, portrait of donor and priests before Shri Nathji, Udaipur, Rajasthan’ will be returned to India by the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: NGA via EPA-EFE


Finding the origin of the artworks

After the latest batch of artworks is handed over to India, the NGA will only hold three of the 22 artifacts it has purchased from Mr. Kapoor. The gallery has removed all three items from display. They will also be repatriated when the museum has established where they should be returned to.

According to The Guardian, Mitzevich said that one work may be from Afghanistan, another from India or Timor, and the third from India or Portugal. “With antiquities like this, country-of-origin is sometimes a little more difficult to pinpoint. Borders are a contemporary manifestation, so we need to be clear about the region [the works]are from.”

Mitzevich, who became the director of the National Gallery of Australia in July 2018, told that since 2014, the NGA had strengthened its due diligence and provenance policies and now had clear processes for the assessment of works.

repatriation of artworks to india

While the NGA could not establish the provenance of another two items and did not have any evidence the six photos were stolen, Mr. Mitzevich told the ABC they would also be returned to India because the NGA “had no faith in Mr. Kapoor’s ethics.”

The director of the National Gallery of Australia, Nick Mitzevich, confirmed the gallery had in principle agreement from the Indian government through the Indian high commission that they welcomed and would receive the works.

“The physical handover will be negotiated over the next couple of months, giving consideration to Covid and the ability to travel, as to whether it’s realistic to have it in India or Canberra,” Mitzevich said.

India’s High Commissioner to Australia, Manpreet Vohra, welcomed news of the repatriation and praised the decision to return the works as “an extraordinary act of goodwill”.

“These are outstanding pieces. Their return will be extremely well received by the government and people of India,” he said.


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