Jul 29 2021

National Gallery of Australia Returns Artifacts to India

by Judy Chiu

An untitled portrait of a Gujarati family group in India from the Guru Das Studio, purchased by National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in 2009. Courtesy NGA.

On July 29, the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) announced the repatriation of 14 artworks and artifacts from its Asian art collection to India. With a combined value at AUD 3 million (USD 2.22 million), these 14 works include six stone or bronze sculptures from the 11th and 12th centuries, an 1851 brass alam (processional standard) from Hyderabad, an 1835 painted vijnaptipatra scroll from Rajasthan, and six photographs. 

Thirteen of the works were purchased from Art of the Past, the New York gallery run by recently convicted art smuggler Subhash Kapoor, between 2002 and 2010, and one came from the late art dealer William Wolff in 1989. Out of the 13 works the NGA acquired from Kapoor, only six sculptures were confirmed to have been stolen, according to Nick Mitzevich, the current director of NGA. The rest were removed from NGA’s collection due to their association with Kapoor and his unethical practices. An in-principle agreement has been made between NGA and the Indian government, with the physical handover still in negotiations. 

Over the past few years, NGA has repatriated most of the artifacts purchased from Art of the Past, while the origins of three works from the gallery have yet to be identified. In 2014, an 11th- or 12th-century bronze statue of Shiva, looted from a temple in Tamil Nadu in southern India and bought in 2008 for USD 5.6 million, was handed over by then-prime minister of Australia Tony Abbott during a trip to India. In 2016, the NGA repatriated a 12th-century stone sculpture of Goddess Pratyangira, also from Tamil Nadu, and a 3rd-century limestone sculpture from Andhra Pradesh titled Worshippers of the Buddha. Two 15th-century stone dvarapala (door guardians), and a 6th-to-8th-century stone sculpture of the serpent king Nagaraja were returned in 2019. 

Since 2014, NGA has taken steps to strengthen its provenance policies. In the case that an artwork was illegally or unethically acquired, the gallery will take measures to repatriate the object. In a press release, Mitzevich explained, “With these developments, provenance decision-making at the National Gallery will be determined by an evidence-based approach evaluated on the balance of probabilities, anchored in robust legal and ethical decision-making principles and considerations.”

Subhash Kapoor founded Art of the Past in 1974 and quickly rose to prominence in the global art market by selling works to renowned institutions such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum, and the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney. In July 2012, Kapoor was extradited from Germany to India for stealing and illegally exporting antiquities. He is currently in custody and if convicted could be jailed for up to 14 years. In 2019, along with seven co-conspirators, he was also charged in New York with 86 counts of grand larceny, possession of stolen property, and conspiracy to defraud. The Manhattan district attorney’s office alleges Kapoor orchestrated a global smuggling ring between 1986 and 2016, trafficking more than 2,600 looted objects from south and southeast Asia worth USD 145 million into the United States. A British art restorer, Neil Perry Smith, was charged in July on 29 counts related to the smuggling ring.

Judy Chiu is an editorial intern at ArtAsiaPacific.

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