The idol-collecting cabal has been increasingly critical of many much-needed actions by states, including criminal prosecutions and civil confiscation of stolen property in recent years. What is puzzling is that these are terms these nations agreed to when they signed the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Means of Prohibiting and Preventing Importation, l illicit export and transfer of ownership of cultural property. The Convention urges “States Parties to take measures to prohibit trafficking in cultural property and provides a common framework on procedures to prevent its import and export”.
With regard specifically to restitution, Articles 7 and 13 of the UNESCO Convention contain the relevant provisions. For objects inventoried and looted in a museum or a public or religious monument, article 7 provides that States must “take appropriate measures to seize and return any stolen and imported cultural property”. Article 13 states that the parties are responsible at the national level in terms of restitution and cooperation. According to UNESCO, “The return and restitution of cultural property is at the heart of the Convention and its duty is not only to remember but to fundamentally safeguard the identity of peoples …”
The United States is increasingly seen as a trailblazer with proactive and aggressive actions, mainly due to high-profile seizures, particularly by the New York City attorney’s office, to combat the illicit antiques market. We highlight the cases of two museums in the United States and how they continue to blatantly violate the basic tenets of the United Nations Statute.
First, let’s look at the Walters Art Museum. Gary Vikan, former museum director and columnist, in his article “Why America’s Museums and the Antique Trade Should Work Together,” begins interestingly: “For years the AAMD [Association of Art Museum Directors] requires its members not to acquire or accept as gifts “unwittingly” works of art that have been exported from their country of origin in violation of national laws. So how did the museum accept the sculpture of Krishna with butter balls from the now arrested and indicted art dealer Subash Kapoor in 2004 without any documents beyond 1981, long after the UNESCO? And the museum continues to hold it!
More interesting is the provenance of an astonishing 10th century bronze by Shiva and Parvati, which, according to the museum’s own provenance disclosure, makes it a rather sad read: “Bashir Antiquities, New Delhi; purchased by John and Berthe Ford, Baltimore, February 1989; donated to the Walters Art Museum, 2008.
This means that it was acquired in Delhi in 1989 in flagrant violation of the Indian Antiquities and Art Treasures Act 1972, of which the museum was aware.
There are more obvious red flags in the following acquisitions:
A dancing Ganesha from Uttar Pradesh which the museum says dates to the 9th / 10th century. The provenance reads as follows: “Ramesh Kapoor [brother of the arrested Subash], New York; purchased by John and Berthe Ford, New York, July 25, 1983; given to the Walters Art Museum, 2004. Note that there is no provenance prior to 1983.
A 9th century sandstone Ganesha with an even stranger provenance (or lack thereof): “Mr. and Mrs. John G. Ford, Baltimore [date and mode of acquisition unknown]; Walters Art Museum, 1987, by donation ”. We had a grand ceremony to welcome the over 100 year old Annapoorna to Varanasi in November and here we have an 11th century Saraswati, from the same location, acquired by the Walters Art Museum from the known and avowed smuggler William Wolff with a point strange question in his own admission. The provenance reads as follows: “Present in Varanasi, India (?); acquired by William Wolff, New York; purchased by the Walters Art Museum, 1969.
The UN website for the 1970 Convention contains this interesting reference which is useful for discussing the above case: “For return cases … not yet listed, bilateral negotiations between states are encouraged … . The Intergovernmental Committee of UNESCO (CIPRCP) can also be called upon to facilitate bilateral negotiations between States concerning requests for the return and restitution of cultural property. The return or restitution of cultural property will therefore be carried out in the spirit of the 1970 Convention.
Vikan, in the column mentioned earlier adds: “A final and decisive blow to the American antique collection ecosystem came in 2008 with the rewrite of the AAMD acquisition guidelines, which now includes this critical passage: “AAMD members should not normally acquire a work unless research proves it was outside the country of modern discovery likely prior to 1970.” That is to say, they are still unwilling to follow the spirit of the United Nations Convention and are hiding behind the fig leaf “before 1970”.
Let us now take the case of the San Diego Museum of Art. The museum’s policy on accepting donations begins with these lines: “All donations must undergo curatorial review before being accepted” and ends with: “If the object is accepted for collection and the donor wishes to report it as a tax deduction, the donor is responsible for obtaining a third party appraisal.
Now take a look at the list of some of the works of art offered by Mr. and Mrs. Vilayanur Ramachandran: Shri Devi (14th century, Karnataka); Shiva Bhikshatana (18th century, Tamil Nadu); Brahma (11th century, Rajasthan); chariot support with riders (18th century, TN); chariot panel with Krishna and the Gopis (18th century, TN); Ganesha sandstone (11th century, Rajasthan); Garuda (17th century); the child Krishna crawling and holding a ball of butter (17th century, Karnataka); Bronze Deepalakshmi (Paavai Vilakku, 17th century, TN); Granite Ganesha (12th / 13th century, TN) (full details according to museum website).
It’s shocking that none of them even have a provenance prior to 2000 except one and even then there are no acquisition details. Will the museum publish the curatorial review for any of these acquisitions and also state whether the donor received tax benefits?
S Vijay Kumar
Co-founder, India Pride Project and author of The Idol Thief