Australian Museum’s Vinod Daniel
U Tejonmayam, ‘Indian art awaits high scrutiny in Oz’, Times of India, 11 January 2017
Soon after the international idol theft racket involving infamous antique dealer P Subhash Chandra Kapoor was busted by the Tamil Nadu police, Australia returned a few stolen Indian idols in an ethical gesture. Even since, many museums in Australia have put acquisitions from India on hold and are conducting a rigorous internal audit on all their collections, says Vinod Daniel, the chairman of the board for AusHeritage, Australia’s international cultural heritage network and a board member of the International Council of Museums. Daniel, who was in the city to conduct a workshop for curators in TN museums, tells TOI more about the current acquisition process in Australian museums.
Q. What is the current situation in Australian museums in terms of antique collection post the return of stolen idols?
There are more than 2000 museums in Australia. For many museums Indian artefacts form up to 50% of their collection, but there are others which do not have Indian collections at all. Artefact acquisition among museums has slowed down drastically after the arrest of Subhash Kapoor. There is nothing like a ban, but currently certain acquisitions have been put on hold till enough scrutiny happens. Many museums have been conducting internal audits too. A lot of acquisitions are sponsored by donors and art connoisseurs and museums are answerable to them as a lot of money is involved in the process. Earlier, it was just about checking the genuineness of an artefact. Now, the level of scrutiny is high. More questions will be asked to find if an object is authentic or stolen and this will probably make it difficult for agents to sell stolen items. It is natural that streamlining the process would take several years. But, what must be appreciated is that Australia is dealing with the issue head on with the active participation of high level officials including its prime minister. The Australian government returned the idols because from an ethical prospective that was the right thing to do.
Q. Why was the same level of scrutiny not implemented when artefacts were purchased from Kapoor?
The system in Australian museums is fair and transparent. No museum would buy if they knew it was a stolen object. But, Kapoor was smart enough to do things to build his profile. He would have probably donated some objects to big museums in the initial stage to establish his credentials and gain their confidence as a seller. He owned a gallery himself, and if an artefact comes from a well-known gallery, it is natural for a museum to do the paperwork at the owner’s face value.
Q. How are acquisitions made in Australian museums?
While every museum has a collection acquisition committee, acquisitions are mostly done based on their procurement strategy. For instance, if a museum wants to build up on a particular collection over a period of next 10 years, it will acquire artefacts in the said category. The donors are mostly Australian citizens. Sometimes, shows are organised where the artefacts the museum intends to buy are exhibited and the donors are invited to view them.
Q. Do we have reason to suspect all the other purchases made through Kapoor?
I think Australian museums still have 25 to 30 more objects that were purchased from Kapoor. But, not every artefact that Kapoor sold was stolen. Many museums have done their internal audit and they may have found that the item purchased from Kapoor was authentic. That is probably why they haven’t returned these artefacts. Many others have also put up their collections online, requesting feedback on their authenticity.
Q. Is the hold on acquisition applicable to any other countries?
For smugglers it is easy to sneak out things from countries like Syria, Iraq and a few African countries, which are in the midst of political instability. When art items come to Australia from these places, the level of scrutiny is high to ensure that they are not stolen ones.
We should start looking beyond Subhash Kapoor. Besides internal audits, more scrutiny needs to be done on the Indian side too. Some of the things that can be done are proper documentation of every artefact and creating awareness among the community on their value and importance. Nowadays, everything is available online. People can post pictures of artefacts if they think they are stolen. They should be able to inform the concerned authorities if something goes missing.