Long Read: Returning heritage

London - Gifted, looted or stolen — Britain has a large number of priceless artefacts from India, other former colonies and elsewhere. but now, some are on their way back home as demands grow

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Fri 30 Apr 2021, 10:06 AM

Last updated: Tue 6 Jul 2021, 2:25 PM

Stepping into India House in central London is like stepping back in time. Designed by the legendary architect Herbert Baker and inaugurated by King George V in 1930, the home of India’s high commission is a blend of change and continuity, with paintings, portraits, busts, artefacts and symbols of modernity set in the high-domed, colonial-style structure. There have been 27 Indian high commissioners since independence in 1947, but rarely have they been as busy as recent envoys, who, since 2016, have overseen the return of several priceless objects that were stolen from India and ended up in the antiques art market in London. The returns happened in the context of intense debates about the wider issue of decolonising public spaces, museums, universities and restituting artefacts that were gifted or looted during centuries of colonial rule in India and elsewhere, including the iconic ‘Kohinoor’ diamond.

Check out the lots offered by auction houses and antique dealers in London, and you invariably find several linked to India. Driven by Britain’s long engagement with the sub-continent, the demand is high, fuelling a network of international art smugglers. Many ancient idols, sculptures and statues have been stolen from across India over the years, ending up in various places — from museums to private collections, with owners not always aware of the criminal journey of their possessions. One of the earliest such examples was the discovery by Scotland Yard of two ancient sandstone pillars (the Amin pillars) in London in 1976, which led to the arrest of the Narang brothers.

Efforts to recover heritage has picked up in recent years, with closer coordination between the British police, the Indian high commission, art volunteers and investigative agencies such as the Enforcement Directorate, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence and the Central Bureau of Investigation. Scotland Yard’s dedicated Art and Antiques Unit, set up in 1969, has aided the recent recovery and return of artefacts overseen by four high commissioners: Navtej Sarna (2016), Y K Sinha (2016-18), Ruchi Ghanashyam (2018-2020) and the current envoy, Gaitri Issar Kumar; in one instance, American investigators were also involved. Efforts are on to recover more, with inputs from India Pride Project, a crowd-sourced heritage recovery initiative that has volunteers in various countries, including Britain.

Stolen in India, recovered in London

In September 2016, Sarna took possession of a 12th-century sculpture of Brahma that was stolen from Rani-ki-Vav in Patan, Gujarat, in November 2001. It surfaced in London in 2015 in an advertisement by an art dealer, but was handed over to Art Loss Register — a due diligence provider for the art market with a database of stolen art and antiques — after the owner realised that it was procured illegally. It has since been returned to the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

On India’s Independence Day in 2018, Sinha received a 12th-century bronze Buddha statue that was stolen from the ASI’s museum in Nalanda, Bihar, in 1961. One of 14 statues stolen from the museum, it changed hands several times before being delivered to a London dealer for sale. The statue was identified at a trade fair in March 2018 by Lynda Albertson of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art and Vijay Kumar from the India Pride Project. When the dealer and owner were informed that the statue was of stolen provenance, they cooperated with the Art and Antiques Unit and agreed for it to be returned to India. British ministers called it an example of the UK’s ‘cultural diplomacy’.

Following a joint US-UK investigation, next year’s Independence Day also saw the handing over of two artefacts linked to Subhash Kapoor, one of the most prolific art smugglers in the world (reportedly facing trial in Tamil Nadu). Ghanashyam received a limestone carved relief sculpture, originating from Andhra Pradesh, estimated to be dated between 1st century BC and 1st century AD; and a Navaneetha Krishna bronze sculpture, from Tamil Nadu, dated around 17th century AD. Peter C Fitzhugh, special agent with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) in New York, says: “The cultural significance of artefacts looted from regions around the world extends beyond a monetary value. The pieces, like those recovered through this operation, are stolen fragments of history; and it is an honour to return them to their rightful home country.”

In 2020, there were lockdowns and Covid curbs, but after years of investigations and recovery, the current envoy, Gaitri Issar Kumar, oversaw the dispatch of more artefacts back home: an exquisite 9th-century statue of Natesh Shiva stolen from the Ghateshwar temple in Chittorgarh district of Rajasthan in February 1998, recovered in London; and three 15th-century bronze idols of Ram, Lakshman and Sita, stolen in 1978 from Tamil Nadu, and handed over in September. The high commission was informed in August 2019 by the India Pride Project that four antique idols stolen from a Vishnu temple in Nagapattinam district built in the Vijayanagara period and smuggled out of India, may be in Britain. One of them was suspected to be in possession of an individual in London. When it was compared and verified from records, the details were given to the Art and Antiques Unit and the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu police; the latter confirmed that the theft took place in 1978. Scotland Yard investigators contacted the owner of the idol and conveyed India’s request to return it. The art collector turned out to be a good-faith purchaser, and the police found that the vendor had died, which meant there were no grounds to open an investigation. The owner informed investigators he also had two idols from the same set, which were also handed over to the high commissioner, and later sent to Tamil Nadu.

Efforts are on to return a 15th-century bronze statue of Tamil poet Tirumankai Alvar, stolen from a temple in Kumbakonam in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s and currently in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. The museum, which bought the statue in good faith in a London auction in 1967, informed the high commission that new research questioned its provenance. Museum officials are waiting for the Covid situation to ease and travel to India to assess the site from where the sculpture came and liaise with local authorities. As Kumar says, the high commission is working on many such cases: “We are confident that in coming days we will be successful in returning many more pieces of our cultural heritage to India. For the past few years, the government of India has given a renewed impetus to the protection of India’s cultural heritage.”

A wider debate

Recovering and returning artefacts that figure in the illegal antiques trade is a relatively easier part of the story. What about those huge numbers that reached England during centuries of colonial rule and are lodged in museums, private collections and with the royal family? There are passionate arguments: should or should not they be returned to countries of origin? Others insist that history comprises many hues, that the past cannot be judged from the standards of now, that history cannot be reduced to binary choices and that instead of emptying museums, it is better to explain context to the artefacts and provide global access to all through digital technology. The British Museum’s position is that there is a much public benefit to visitors in displaying the whole world under one roof. Some colleges and university museums have returned items in their possessions to former colonies, while others believe that the priceless artefacts are better preserved in Britain than in their countries of origin.

Of all former colonies, Britain today perhaps has the most number of artefacts linked to the Indian sub-continent, since colonial India was supposed to be the ‘jewel in the crown’. The Victoria & Albert Museum alone, according to its director Tristram Hunt, received nearly 19,000 objects in its early days when it was set up in the mid-19th century, amassed by officials of the East India Company. Tens of thousands more are elsewhere; for example, in the British Museum, Natural History Museum, Ashmolean Museum, Fitzwilliam Museum and the vast Royal Collection. The Clive Museum in Powis Castle in Wales is reputed to be the largest private collection, assembled by two generations of the Clive family: Robert Clive, first governor of the Bengal Presidency and his son Edward, who as governor of the Madras Presidency defeated Tipu Sultan in the late 18th century.

Several politicians, writers, academics and experts have intervened in the intense restitution debate, including David Cameron who, when asked about returning the ‘Kohinoor’ on a visit to India as Prime Minister in 2010, simply said: “If you say yes to one you suddenly find the British Museum would be empty. I think I am afraid to say… it is going to have to stay put.” But French President Emmanuel Macron shifted the debate in 2017, when he referred to French colonialism and declared: “I am from a generation of the French people for whom the crimes of European colonialism are undeniable and make up part of our history. I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France…In the next five years, I want the conditions to be created for the temporary or permanent restitution of African patrimony to Africa” (no restitution from France has happened so far, though). Greece continues to demand that Britain return the Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon centuries ago and taken to London by the Earl of Elgin. ‘Contested objects’ in the British Museum include the ‘Benin Bronzes’ from Benin City, the capital of the Kingdom of Benin, which became part of the British Empire from 1897 to 1960 and is now part of Nigeria.

Says Iain Shore, descendant of John Shore, who was governor-general of India from 1793 to 1797: “What does one do with all the relics of empire and conquest from centuries ago? Keep them in dusty museums, in families who forget (or never bother to learn) the history behind them and throw them away. Maybe one should return them whence they came? The latter course of action, whether originally acquired by purchase, conquest/spoils of battle, or even outright theft, is increasingly favoured these days. I shall not venture into the vexed question of the politics surrounding such items, but content myself with noting that my own opinions on this matter have shifted somewhat. Do we, as a country, really need these items? Surely we have enough of our own precious artefacts.” There are no quick and easy answers.”

Hunt may have a way out of the conundrum. He intends to lend items from its colonial-era collections to India during the 75th anniversary of independence in 2022, which would be the first time they leave Britain. Objects in British museums cannot be removed permanently by law, but “sharing” them could be a temporary workaround. The museum has already offered Ethiopia a long-term loan of the Maqdala treasures which were looted by the British Army during the 1868 Abyssinian Expedition. Hunt said during the last Orwell Lecture: “Quite understandably communities to whom we are seeking to lend these items say: ‘Hold on, you are asking us to borrow items from you that you took from us?’ and at the moment, legally, that’s all we can do.” But critics insist ‘loan’ means Britain remains the owner.

As campaigns to decolonise public spaces mount in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, there are signs that the debate has shifted from earlier outright denial of returning the artefacts to greater sensitivity about their provenance and considering their return, particularly those of national and religious significance sought for reasons of self-esteem and dignity. But as Hunt indicated in a lengthy piece in The Observer, the artefacts are unlikely to leave British shores anytime soon: “(We) need to tread carefully along a path of total restitution, dictated by a political timetable. There remains something essentially valuable about the ability of museums to position objects beyond particular cultural or ethnic identities, curate them within a broader intellectual or aesthetic lineage, and situate them within a wider, richer framework of relationships while allowing free and open access, physically and digitally.”

(Prasun Sonwalkar is a journalist based in London.)

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