30 July 2021

NGA to hand back more stolen art works to India

| Ian Bushnell
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Indian statue of child saint Sambandar

One of the 14 works to be returned to India. The dancing child saint Sambandar, 12th century, Tamil Nadu, was purchased in 2005. Photo: NGA.

The National Gallery of Australia will return a further 14 works from its Asian collection to the Indian Government as part its repatriation program set up in response to revelations that a number of Indian art works in its possession had likely been stolen

The works of art being repatriated include 13 objects connected to jailed art dealer Subhash Kapoor through Art of the Past and one acquired from art dealer William Wolff.

New York-based Kapoor is still awaiting trial in India for alleged looting of antiquities from southern India and is also subject to an extradition request from the Manhattan District Attorney.

The works include six bronze or stone sculptures, a brass processional standard, a painted scroll and six photographs.

Another three sculptures sourced from Art of the Past have also been removed from the collection.

The NGA says further research will be done to identify their place of origin before they are repatriated. But when they are handed back, the National Gallery will no longer hold any works acquired through Subhash Kapoor in its collection after previous repatriation of works in 2014, 2016 and 2019.

It says the decision to return the works is the culmination of years of research, due diligence and an evolving provenance framework that considers available evidence about both the legal and ethical aspects of a work of art’s history.

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If it is considered likely that an item was stolen, illegally excavated, exported in contravention of the law of a foreign country or unethically acquired, the National Gallery will take steps to rescind ownership and hand the work back.

NGA Director Nick Mitzevich said these actions showed the gallery’s commitment to being a leader in the ethical management of collections.

“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,” he said.

“As the first outcome of this change, the gallery will be returning 14 objects from the Indian art collection to their country of origin.

“This is the right thing to do, it’s culturally responsible and the result of collaboration between Australia and India. We are grateful to the Indian Government for their support and are pleased we can now return these culturally significant objects.”

Mr Mitzevich said the gallery would continue its provenance research including for the Asian art collection, and resolve the status of any works of concern.

The Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Manpreet Vohra, welcomed the decision by the Australian Government and the National Gallery to return the works.

“The Government of India is grateful for this extraordinary act of goodwill and gesture of friendship from Australia,” Mr Vohra said.

“These are outstanding pieces – their return will be extremely well-received by the government and people of India.”

This latest move follows years of significant research to determine the provenance of works in the Asian art collection including two independent reviews conducted by former High Court Justice Susan Crennan.

The works being returned are:

  • Chola dynasty (9th-13th centuries), The child-saint Sambandar, 12th century, purchased 1989
  • Chola dynasty (9th-13th centuries), The dancing child-saint Sambandar, 12th century, purchased 2005
  • Hyderabad, Telangana, India, Processional standard [‘alam], 1851, purchased 2008
  • Mount Abu region, Rajasthan, India, Arch for a Jain shrine, 11th-12th century, purchased 2003
  • Mount Abu region, Rajasthan, India, Seated Jina, 1163, purchased 2003
  • Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh, India, The divine couple Lakshmi and Vishnu [Lakshmi Narayana], 10th-11th century, purchased 2006
  • Gujarat, India, Goddess Durga slaying the buffalo demon [Durga Mahisasuramardini], 12th-13th century, purchased 2002
  • Rajasthan, India, Letter of invitation to Jain monks; picture scroll [vijnaptipatra], c. 1835, purchased 2009
  • Lala D. Dayal, India, Maharaja Sir Kishen Pershad Yamin, 1903, purchased 2010
  • Udaipur, Rajasthan, India, not titled [‘Manorath’ portrait of donor and priests before Shri Nathji, Udaipur, Rajasthan], unknown date, purchased 2009
  • Guru Das Studio, not titled [Gujarati family group portrait], purchased 2009
  • Shanti C. Shah, Hiralal A Gandhi memorial portrait, 1941, purchased 2009
  • Venus Studio, India, not titled [Portrait of a man], 1954, purchased 2009
  • Udaipur, Rajasthan, India, not titled [Portrait of a woman], unknown date, purchased 2009

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Decision to return works followed “due diligence” by the NGA. What about due diligence preceding purchase of the works? What did said purchases cost the Gallery (and hence taxpayers) and how much of that cost is recoverable?

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