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Stolen Cultural Objects

In September Tony Abbott returned two antique statues to India in the presence of his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. Source: EPA/ Government of India.

Lyndel Prott, Honorary Professor, International Heritage Law, University of Queensland, ‘Stolen cultural objects: what’s the role of Australian galleries?’ The Conversation, 1 December 2014

Last week, The Australian reported that 49 artworks had been identified by the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) with gaps in their ownership history that could signal they were stolen.

Asian antiquities account for 24 of the potentially problematic pieces. The other 25 have missing ownership information from the early 1930s to 1945, during Nazi-era Europe.

After a great deal of negotiation and protests from descendants of Jewish families whose art works, as well as countries such as Israel and European countries which had important items stolen by the Nazis, European museums have had to scour their records and publicise them where there appear to be gaps in the history of provenance.

This case is, alas, only the tip of the iceberg. The Australian reported last Thursday that the Art Gallery of NSW (AGNSW) paid A$300,000 in 2002 to acquire: a stone carving of Shiva with Nandi … with bogus ownership history documents from dealer Subhash Kapoor.

In September the Australian Prime Minister personally returned a 900-year-old bronze Dancing Shiva (Shiva Nataraja) to the Prime Minister of India which had been bought by the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) and was subsequently found to have been stolen from a temple in southern India.

In a country which has been a party to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property – 1970 since 1989, how did the AGSA, the NGA and the AGNSW find themselves in such egregious situations?

Despite the passage of the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986 which implements for Australia the provisions of the 1970 Convention, the holding institutions have not undertaken the effort that they should have over the last 25 years …

Efforts to see that the 1986 Act is being complied with have been much more active under some federal governments than others. The present government left the National Cultural Heritage Committee without a chairman and with some vacant seats for many months, so it was effectively inoperative.

In 2009 there was a public consultation about the working of the Act.

Recommendations were made but no further action has been taken on them. The United Kingdom has been working on guidance for museums and art galleries on many difficult issues such as the treatment and return of human remains, and the return of spoliated goods.

Recently Australia produced the Australian Best Practice Guide to Collecting Cultural Material. In June this year a draft was circulated for further comment. But the final version of the guide is less compelling than the original draft.

Current museum directors in Australia now have two challenges: to verify a good provenance of objects already acquired and to negotiate with culturally rich countries for loans (long-term and short) to broaden appreciation of exotic cultures in return for support for their museums and culture.

Read the full article here.

[The Museums and Galleries Australia Alliance (which brings together CAMD, the Council of Australian Art Museum Directors, Museums Australia and ICOM-Australia) released a statement in April of this year urging all member museums and galleries to exercise the utmost care in researching acquisitions and to ensure that ethical standards, as well as legal compliance with national or international laws and conventions, takes centre-place in their work of creating collections for the nation’s benefit.  Read the full statement here.

The Museums and Galleries Australia Alliance also provided detailed input to and supports the Australian Best Practice Guide to Collecting Cultural Material.

The National Cultural Heritage Committee is now operating once again under the Chairmanship of Patrick Greene, Chair of CAMD and CEO of Museum Victoria.]