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Australian gallery identifies looted Indian treasures

A long-running smuggling scandal involving temple looters in India and a high-profile New York art dealer has widened after an independent review found that the National Gallery of Australia may have been among the prestigious art galleries duped by false documentation.

Australian gallery identifies looted Indian treasures
Worshippers of the Buddha, 3rd century Andhra Pradesh limestone sculpture bought
 by the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) from Art of the Past in 2005 for US$595,000. 
Its provenance is now described as "highly problematic" [Credit: NGA]
The Canberra-based gallery, which is Australia's leading cultural institution, said in mid-February that it had identified 22 objects with suspect origins in its Asian art collection, including 14 works bought from former New York-based dealer Subhash Kapoor for $11 million.

Kapoor is in custody in Chennai, India, awaiting trial on art theft charges following his arrest in Germany in October 2011 and extradition to India in mid-2012.

The Canberra gallery said an independent review of its Asian art provenance project by a former High Court judge, Susan Crennan, found the 22 objects had "insufficient or questionable" documentation of their provenance.

One of the objects, a 900-year-old Chola-era bronze statue entitled "Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja)" has already been returned to India. Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott handed it over to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September 2014, along with a stone statue of Ardhanariswara (Shiva in half-female form), dating from around 1100. That statue was in the collection of another leading Australian gallery, the Sydney-based Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Both of these Hindu art treasures allegedly were stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu in southern India and shipped to Kapoor.

The Canberral gallery bought the Shiva Nataraja from Kapoor's Art of the Past gallery on Madison Avenue in New York in 2008 for $5.1 million, while the New South Wales gallery paid Kapoor 300,000 Australian dollars ($220,800) in 2004 for the Ardhanariswara. The provenance documents he provided now appear to be fraudulent, according to Crennan's report. "There is evidence that the object (the Shiva Nataraja) was stolen from an identified temple in Tamil Nadu ... and that it left India in late 2006 and was given a false ownership history," she wrote. Kapoor is alleged to have masterminded the theft of 28 bronzes from two temples in Tamil Nadu in 2006 and 2008, and their illegal export to the U.S., according to the Economic Offences Wing of the Tamil Nadu police. U.S. authorities have seized $100 million worth of antiquities from Kapoor's gallery and an associated business, Nimbus Import Export, and Kapoor may face U.S. charges after his Chennai trial. Delhi-born Kapoor, 66, moved to the U.S. in 1974 and is a U.S. citizen.

Australian gallery identifies looted Indian treasures
The Dancing Child-Saint Sambandar, 12th century Chola era bronze sculpture 
bought by the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) from Art of the 
Past in 2005 for US$765,000 [Credit: NGA]
The two Australian galleries are not the only major institutions to have made purchases from Kapoor; galleries in Singapore, Germany, the U.S. and Canada have returned art objects to India over the past year.

A private New York collector surrendered a $1 million bronze to U.S. authorities in mid-2015 after it was identified as stolen. It has also become clear that many major U.S. institutions dealt with Kapoor, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio and the Smithsonian's Freer and Sackler Galleries in Washington DC.

Crennan's independent report on the Canberra gallery's Asian Art Provenance project, published on Feb. 17, covers 36 objects acquired between 1968 and 2013, including the 14 bought from Kapoor between 2002 and 2011.

Crennan found that only 12 of the 36 had satisfactory provenance, while two others needed further research and the remaining 22 had insufficient or questionable provenance documentation. The gallery aims eventually to publish the provenance of all 5,000 objects in its Asian art collection.

Aside from the Kapoor purchases, the 36 objects whose documentation was reviewed by Crennan included a red sandstone sculpture, the "Seated Buddha," which the gallery bought from Nancy Wiener Galleries in New York for $1,080,000 in 2007. Last year, after discussions about how the Kushan-period sculpture -- created between 200 BC and 400 AD -- was exported from India, Wiener agreed to refund the purchase price to the Canberra gallery and undertook to return the sculpture to India in 2016.

"Exemplary collaboration"

India's High Commissioner in Australia, Navdeep Suri, praised the Canberra gallery's actions, saying its collaboration with the Archaeological Survey of India to determine the provenance of the "Seated Buddha" was "truly exemplary." He said the Australian gallery had set an example for other countries and institutions to follow in the restitution of stolen artworks to their countries of origin.

Australian gallery identifies looted Indian treasures
The Goddess Pratyangira, 12th century Chola era stone sculpture bought by
 the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) from Art of the Past in 2005 
for US$247,500 [Credit: NGA]
The Canberra gallery bought the "Seated Buddha" with assistance from gallery benefactor Roslyn Packer, widow of the late media tycoon Kerry Packer. Roslyn Packer also helped the gallery to buy an 800-year-old sculpture, the "Sacred Bull Nandi, Vehicle of Shiva," for A$655,000 from another New York art dealer, Carlton Rochell, in 2009. This sculpture's provenance is also under a cloud; Crennan's report described it as "problematic" and needing further research.

In a September 2014 statement to mark Abbott's return of the two statues to India, the Canberra gallery said it "would never knowingly purchase a stolen or looted item." It said the gallery had undertaken lengthy, comprehensive and independent research before it bought the Shiva Nataraja from Kapoor in 2008. "Despite these efforts, court proceedings may yet confirm that the gallery has been a victim of a most audacious fraud," said the then director of the gallery, Ron Radford. Radford retired the same month, after 10 years as director.

The search for the Hindu statues stolen from two temples in Tamil Nadu in 2006 and 2008 was aided by photographic evidence from the archives of the French Institute of Pondicherry. The institute, established in what was once the French colony of Pondicherry, about 200km south of Chennai, had a collection of photographs of items in various temples in the region. These were matched against catalogue pictures of items being offered for sale by Kapoor in New York. Kapoor's Art of the Past gallery manager Aaron Freedman pleaded guilty in the U.S. in December 2013 to one count of criminal conspiracy and five counts of possession of stolen property. He is now helping U.S. federal authorities with their inquiries. Another New York associate, Selina Mohamed, was charged in December 2013 with possession of stolen property. She subsequently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of conspiracy and in March 2015 was given a one year conditional release.

The arrests were part of Operation Hidden Idol, run by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Homeland Security Investigations' cultural property unit, which focused on Kapoor's activities.

The Kapoor case evokes parallels with an art looting saga from the 1970s involving a temple north-east of Cambodia's famed Angkor complex. Between 2013 and 2015, six 10th century sandstone statues that were stolen from the Koh Ker temple during the Cambodian civil war were returned to Cambodia from the U.S. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York returned two of these statues in 2013 after it said new information had come to light that was not available when the statues were donated to the museum between 1987 and 1992.

In 2014, three items portraying characters from the Mahabharata, an epic Sanskrit poem of ancient India, were returned by the U.S., including a statue of Duryodhana that was first auctioned in London in 1975. The statue was due to be auctioned by Sotheby's in New York in March 2011 before action by Unesco, the United Nations cultural organization, stopped the sale on Cambodia's behalf.

Another statue, of the character Bhima, was returned by California's Norton Simon museum and a third, representing the character Pandava, was returned by Christie's auction house in 2014. Last year, the Cleveland Museum of Art said it would return a statue of Hanuman, a Hindu god, that it acquired in 1982.

Author: Geoff Hiscock | Source: Nikkei Asian Review [March 04, 2016]

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