Aldous Huxley is known to have famously said "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored." One such brutally ignored fact would be the plunder of cultural heritage around the world and the up to US$3 billion plundered art and antiquities trade that it contributes to.1
The looting of cultural heritage is a practice as ancient as warfare itself and with the development of the world's great civilizations, the proverbial "spoils of war" have often included national and cultural treasures. This, unfortunately, is a fact that is true for India, a country known for its rich and varied cultural heritage. The illegal export of Indian art treasures is not a new practice.
With the Indian art market growing at a phenomenal rate the demand for art treasures has expanded to include a lower price segment and regardless of the age of the works these have begun to command value. Hence, the illegal trade, which was earlier restricted to royal collections in the process of being disbursed, has now begun to impact anything that comes with a tag of being "cultural heritage". There are multiple reports of thefts taking place in locked up palaces of Rajasthan or originals in museums that are sold off and replaced with cheap fakes. As per an article published in a leading newspaper,an investigation was conducted a few years ago which led to the startling discovery of the small fortunes accumulated by villagers belonging to Berachampa village (also known as the pilferer's paradise where excavation has been banned) near Kolkata by illegally supplying exotic antiques to some of the biggest players in the art world.2 According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 4408 antique items were stolen from monuments across the country during 2008-2012 but only 1493 could be intercepted by the law enforcement agencies. Around 2913 antique items are feared to have been shipped to dealers and auction houses worldwide.In this process of plunder for profit the cultural history of India is being torn out of its context making it unfeasible to relate to it except in the most abstract way.
Though India is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, the Convention is not retrospective. Thus it applies only to cultural property stolen or illicitly exported after the Convention has entered into force for the State Parties involved. This limiting factor allows art treasures like the ones mentioned earlier to slip through the cracks and results in unsuccessful restitution of cultural property.
The existing law in India, The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 was enacted by the the central government of India to regulate the export trade in antiquities and art treasures and to provide for the prevention of smuggling of and fraudulent dealings in antiquities, the compulsory acquisition of antiquities and art treasures for their preservation in public places and certain other matters connected therewith or incidental or ancillary thereto.3 The objective of the law originally was to prevent smuggling and ensure that Indian antiques remain within the country. Due to its complexities, especially the registration clause, antiques in India became "non-existent" after the Act was notified with most of the art pieces going underground or important pieces being smuggled out of the country. Though the Act was conceived to prevent smuggling, tragically it had just the opposite effect. It is evident that the Act requires revision and although the Government of India has been mulling over this matter for nearly three decades with the last committee having submitted its report in 2012 the Act is yet to be amended or replaced. A newspaper recently reported that officials from the Ministry of Culture had indicated that the Government was in the process of drafting a new Antiquities Law to replace the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972. The task has been assigned to a retired additional secretary in the Ministry of Law and Justice and the subsequent amendments to the Act would be proposed after consultations with the multiple stakeholders of the Art World.4
Although India has a rich history of over 20 centuries, 50 odd years of socialism post-independence and inefficacious laws that have failed to prevent loss and damage to arts and antiquities, have irreversibly altered the underlying fabric of the culture tied to arts in India. However one hopes that India will sooner rather than later adopt a robust disciplinary regime of laws relating to the Arts and Antiquities to stem the loss because India still has a large repository of antiquities tucked away in its vast land. The stake holders also need to come together to meet the challenge and prepare to address the legal issues pertaining to arts and antiquities which are themselves significant and colossal in nature.
1. Data as per the Report published by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research in the University of Cambridge, England
2. Plunder of Bengal's treasure, 20 October 2013, The Times of India.
3. Scope of the Act as defined in the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act,1972
4. Plunderers of Past Make Millions Through Legal Loopholes,15 March 2015 ,The Sunday Standard
Originally published on The Legal 500
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