Bringing Home India’s Stolen Heritage

"Colonial loot and plunder are not a faceless crime – the Limestones of Amaravati were plundered by Elliot who against vehement objection by his own officers took them to London for so called safekeeping, where they sat on a wharf for 7 years! Today they are exhibited devoid of any context and the other two portions are in the Chennai and Kolkata Museums. They could be reunited to reconstruct a brilliant stupa rivaling Sanchi in Amaravati. So is the case of the Leiden copper plate grants of Rajendra Chola currently housed in the Leiden University – the only proof of the mightily Cholas’ naval prowess – I am imagining how it would be if it was brought back and enshrined within the great Emperor’s temple in Gangaikonda Cholapuram."

There are many such cases of thefts and loots, resulting in the loss of our invaluable tangible heritage. The India Pride Project is a volunteer-driven organization that has been at the forefront of advocating the return of our stolen wealth. This is an arduous process and the battle is long-drawn, but must be undertaken.

In this interview, S. Vijay Kumar, Co-founder of IPP, explains the importance, consequences as well as challenges in restituting India’s cultural loots.

What makes the recent repatriation of the 14 artifacts from the National Gallery of Australia a significant development in the direction of bringing back our stolen?

The latest round of restitution from the NGA marks an end to our decade-long battle with them for transparency and accountability of their Kapoor acquisitions. India owes a lot to journalists Jason Felch and Michaela Boland whose contributions were critical for this result. This result is crucial in many aspects.

One, museums know that India is serious to pursue its stolen art unlike in the past and we hope other museums, collectors, auction houses and dealers realise this. Looted Indian art is no longer fair game.

Two, looting is not particular only to Tamil Nadu and spreads beyond to Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Telangana, Andhra Pradesh etc. However, this restitution shows that our heritage is at risk pan India. We hope the center and states acknowledge this and pursue the heritage crimes seriously.

Lastly, in the backlash of the Kapoor scandal Australia published acquisition records of their Indian collection which included a bronze standing sambandar stolen in the 1960s and connected to infamous dealer William Wolff. We have now proven that he was stolen from the Sirkazhi temple and thus proven that the art world is wrong in imagining a pre-1970 (pre-UN convention) acquisitions that are somehow untouchable.


Nataraja in Bronze, repatriated from National Gallery of Australia

India is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO Convention that Prohibits and Prevents the Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property. We also have the UNSC Resolution 2347 advocated against unlawful destruction and lootings of cultural objects. Can you tell us a bit about this regulatory framework and its effectiveness in safeguarding our cultural properties?

Firstly, The UN 1970 convention is only an enabler – sadly the collecting lobby has given it a new meaning by wrongly attributing that 1970 is some sort of “laxman rekha” that miraculously washes a pre-1970 acquired stolen artifact. In fact, the UN was not powerful enough to enact the convention on a retrospective basis as otherwise, no ‘’market’ nation would sign it. We have time and again proven the basic concept of Latin maxim, nemo dat quod non habet which literally means no one can give what they do not have.

The UN statute just means that if we can prove the theft happened post 1970 then we can just invoke the convention and the opposite side has 30 days to refute the claim or the object is forfeited to India. Please do bear in mind that even this is only possible if the other nation is a signatory to the 1970 Convention – many nations are not. Further, the burden of proof still lies with the ‘source’ country.

In the past few years, governments from Australia, Germany and Canada have returned our stolen and looted artifacts.  This has also been the case with many other former colonial nations returning loots to their colonies. What has given impetus to these restitutions?

In the case of India, one could also add Singapore, the USA, and UK to the list. Sadly, despite the overall optics each and every one of these Restitutions have not been Voluntary or due to some sudden change in cultural relations – but due to our protracted battles, combined with support from the media wherein we have named and shamed hoarders of stolen art.

The spurt of restitution if any has created a spotlight on the shortcomings of the functioning of the various ministries and custodians who have for long being supportive of a false claim that India has lost only a few (single digit) artifacts. The wave of restitutions planned and happening will force them to give up this blatantly false narrative – to such an extent that there is an attempt to dilute the already toothless Antiquities Act of 1972 while globally there is a call for stricter laws and penalties for heritage crimes.

Many other “source” nations like Italy, Egypt and Cambodia have pushed further in a more aggressive manner to engage with such battles legally to enforce their cultural patrimony laws across jurisdictions and even outside the confines of the 1970 UN Convention, whereas India has lagged behind in its understanding of Common Law and continues to soft-peddle even clear open and shut claims.

Another important reason for this recent change is the uncomfortable questions that are being asked to the so-called “Encyclopedic museums” by their very own people – quite often the provenance or origins of these objects are “white” washed and today when the uncomfortable answers keep coming up the erstwhile adamant custodians are shown the mirror. Provenances bought from locals are being exposed as “bought for a bag of rice or a pair of spectacles”, bequeathed by Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India is no longer enough. How did the Viceroy of India own a Chola bronze is a question that needs answers.

What are some regulatory frameworks and legal mechanisms in India to prevent cultural loot and protect heritage artifacts?

India has had its own Cultural Patrimony laws going back to the 1880s. However, there have been feeble attempts at passing a law for heritage. One of the reasons was India being a signatory to the 1970 UN convention – out of which the 1972 Antiquities and Art Treasures Act (AAT Act) was born. AAT Act is read with ref to the previous Acts of 1947 etc. Sadly, the Act only covers the registration of antiquities and the ambiguous nature of the time frame means there is no clear time frame even for the same, with maximum penalties of up to 6 months for such an attempt to sell without registration, etc wherein the burden of proof has been repeatedly challenged in India Courts and lost!! The only other section available is under IPC sec 380 which deals with housebreaking theft with a maximum penalty of 3000 Rs and or 7 years.  Shockingly Tamil Nadu has passed a state amendment in 1993 which basically halves the punishment for temple theft.

The more enforceable penalty has been under the Customs Act of 1962 wherein again there has to be a crime committed under the Act. With the competency level of our custodians and porous borders and the dollar-driven prices, it is no surprise that hardly 2-3 border seizures per year are ever reported.

What makes our murthis and other historical objects a target of looting and illicit trade across the globe?

The idea and the deeper meaning of words such as Murthi, Pratima etc might not be easily understood by a global audience. Owing to this, we (incl me for my book) are compelled to use words such as "Idol" despite its very obvious negative connotations. Further we see that the western world largely looks at sacred objects as “Art”. This is only incidental as the original creators never destined them to be “pieces of Art” and surely did not create them to be exhibited as showpiece curios in the bedrooms and lining the swimming pools of the billionaires. In that case, I would like to categorically state that the usage of both the terms “Art” & “Idols” are incorrect when we talk about the majority of the cases we are currently battling for.

Moreover, the dollar and greed-driven erstwhile colonial mindset as well as the brutish display of superiority by the collecting lobby, aided by paid scholars from our very own has reduced our sacred objects to such sordid state – priceless Gods being traded as commodities, displayed with price tags and auctioned openly.

The global art market with its inherent opaqueness has successfully fought repeated attempts at bringing them into the legal ambit thanks to big backers with deep pockets (who have openly declared as in a recent disclosure in the US) to engage and compensate lobbyists to fight regulations aimed at bringing more transparency into this grey market – a market that runs into the billions and has since been proven to fund amongst others terror outfits, money launderers and tax fraudsters.

Where should the retrieved murthis belong – in museums or temples?

The state of our museums are pathetic but we do believe that as much as possible – restituted icons must return to the temple site to be worshipped and preserved in situ. Previously due to outdated understanding of the antiquities market the custodians refused to hand over the murthis back to temples citing the risk of repeat theft and confined them to storage lockers – but what is needed is an understanding which again stems from the signed conventions of UN 1970 – India needed to document and create a proper archive, report thefts and maintain a stolen artworks database. Further, once an artifact is documented it becomes virtually unsellable in the international market – but again only when we become assertive like Italy and police the art market – passing the onus and burden of proof on the seller.

If theft spots cannot be matched or if they are broken ruined, we feel they must go to at least the state museums – wherein a proper inquiry be ordered to record the original theft and teams formed to probe the original theft. Sadly, despite a host of restitution, because they are turned into photo-ops and goodwill gestures, not a single state other than Tamil Nadu has managed to file a single case against the returns so far. We have gotten back the objects, but the robbers are still in the open and still robbing our precious icons.


Ganesha repatriated from the Toledo Museum, Ohio

How have digitization and advanced technologies aided your work at the India Pride Project?

Over the last decade and half, we have successfully leveraged social media to build a citizen volunteer network and with every successful restitution we see more hope amongst our team and more people coming forward to support the cause – when I started working on this domain, I was very clear that we will not engage in seeking any financial support or gratification nor awards or rewards in any form and pleased to advise that we have stayed true to that path – this combined with increasing confidence in how we keep source confidentiality among our informants and field warriors – who risk limb and life to get us crucial clues has been most satisfying.

We could work with more tech support as the background effort still relies on old-fashioned elbow greeze of image matching and stylistic dating etc. We did approach a few tech majors to build AI to help both on the internet crawlers and image matching but after a few promising advances, they were put off with the prospect of seeing their tech being used in litigation against powerful collecting lobby in “markets” where their primary businesses are.

What are your next plans for the India Pride Project?

India had restituted 19 artifacts in the period 1972 to 2000 and zero from 2000 to 2013 – from there we have crossed 50 with over 95% of the restitutions linked to our interventions. We hope to take this number to 3 digits and cross 250 by 2023 by which time we hope the center will take notice and set up a National Art crime squad and we can assist in their setup and training.

Images from Poetry in Stone