Illicit Trade In Antiquities In India: A Legal Overview

Naik Naik & Company


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India's rich cultural heritage is safeguarded under the Constitution of India, which empowers the State to formulate laws and regulations to protect and preserve this heritage.
India International Law
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India's rich cultural heritage is safeguarded under the Constitution of India, which empowers the State to formulate laws and regulations to protect and preserve this heritage. The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, administered by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), aims to regulate and deter the illicit trade of movable cultural properties. However, despite the Act's existence, illicit trade in antiquities remains a significant problem even today. However, before we look at the lacunae in the law, we must first look at some of the important existing provisions for the protection of antiquities.

Legal Framework for Antiquities Protection

The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, defines 'antiquity' and 'art treasure' and sets forth regulations for their protection. Under Section 2(1)(a), antiquities include coins, sculptures, paintings, epigraphs, object or thing detached from a building or cave, objects illustrative of science, art, literature, religion, customs, and politics from bygone ages and object or thing of historical interest. These objects must be at least 100 years old, except for manuscripts and records, which need only be 75 years old. Section 2(1)(b) defines 'art treasures' as human works of art of significant artistic or aesthetic value. An important prerequisite under this section is that it can be declared an art treasure only post the artist's death.
Key provisions of the Act include:

  • Section 3: Prohibits the export of antiquities and art treasures by private persons, reserving this right for the Central Government or its appointed authorities.
  • Section 7: Requires individuals wishing to sell antiquities to acquire a license, ensuring sellers are knowledgeable and trustworthy.
  • Section 14: Mandates the registration of specified antiquities, creating a central repository to track ownership and prevent illegal trade.
  • Section 17: Requires notification of any transfer of ownership, control, or possession of antiquities to the registering officer.
  • Section 25(2): Imposes penalties for possessing unregistered antiquities, including imprisonment, fines, and confiscation.

Despite these measures, the Act has not been entirely effective in preventing illicit trade and ensuring the return of stolen artifacts to India. Several issues impede its successful implementation.

Shortcomings in the Law

One significant obstacle is the lack of a centralized database, making it difficult to track the ownership and provenance of antiquities. The registration process is cumbersome, discouraging compliance. The National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities has only registered a fraction of the documented antiquities, highlighting the need for a more efficient system.

The penalties for illicit trade are also inadequate. Compared to countries like Egypt and China, which impose severe punishments for heritage crimes, India's penalties are too lenient to deter smugglers.

Proposed Changes and Recommendations

To address these issues, the draft Antiquities and Art Treasures Regulation, Export, and Import Bill, 2017, proposed several amendments. It suggested eliminating the license requirement for domestic sales and allowing virtual trade of antiquities, aiming to encourage registration and create a comprehensive database. The Bill also proposed digitalizing the registration process, making it more accessible.

However, the Bill had its flaws. It allowed 'no questions asked' sales, potentially facilitating the trade of stolen antiquities. The government must balance easing regulations with stringent measures to prevent illegal activities.

A multifaceted approach is essential to effectively combat illicit trade in antiquities. This includes:

  • Centralized Database: Establishing a comprehensive, easily accessible database of antiquities, possibly in collaboration with private databases like The Art Loss Register.
  • Technology: Utilizing online tools and global databases such as Object ID to streamline inventory processes and enhance tracking.
  • Stringent Penalties: Revising the Act to impose stricter penalties for illicit trade, deterring smugglers with more severe consequences.
  • International Cooperation: Partnering with international organizations to address cross-border antiquities trade and disputes.
  • Public Awareness: Promoting heritage education to foster public support for preservation efforts.


India's current legal framework to prevent the illicit trade of antiquities has significant gaps. Addressing these requires legal reforms, technological advancements, international cooperation, and public engagement. Without these measures, India's cultural heritage risks being lost to illegal trade, depriving future generations of their rich history. A proactive, multifaceted strategy is essential to preserve and protect India's invaluable antiquities for posterity.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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