By Nithin Sridhar
Every other week, one can hear reports of ancient idols being stolen from some remote corners of India. In a few of those cases, the smugglers are caught and the idols returned to their rightful places. In all other cases, nobody knows what happened to those stolen idols and where they went. Few such idols may occasionally be discovered far away from their home, in some international gallery, never to return home.
This is the reality of what is happening to our Gods whose presence we have invoked in the idols and have been worshiping them for centuries, but whom we are neglecting today by not caring and protecting their abodes (i.e. temples).
In an exclusive interview with NewsGram, Dr. Donna Yates shared her views about sacred arts, their thefts, the market, the modus operandi, and the measures needed to prevent such thefts.
Dr. Donna Yates is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow. She is currently visiting Nepal till 19 July, to observe heritage site security measures following the country’s April earthquake.
Nithin Sridhar: In your bio, it’s mentioned that you are currently working on Trafficking Culture project. Can you share with us regarding the work being done in the project?
Dr. Donna Yates: Absolutely. The Trafficking Culture project began in early 2012, thanks to a grant from European Research Council. We are based at the University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research.
Our goal is to study the theft, trafficking, and illicit sale of looted cultural objects from a multidisciplinary angle. Thus we use aspects of criminology, archaeology, legal studies, art history, anthropology, and sociology to try and understand this issue.
A lot of our work has focused on local, national, and international policy and tries to answer questions like why laws and regulations fail to protect cultural objects and heritage sites, and what would make those policies better.
To this end we have conducted both quantitative analyses of the market and qualitative studies of antiquities trafficking networks and have done fieldwork in Cambodia, Bolivia, Belize, Mexico and now Nepal, although the Nepal work is only just starting. Our hope is to provide the core research that policy makers need to make effective heritage protection decisions.
NS: Since when have you been interested in artifact smuggling, antiquities etc.? What made you choose this field?
DY: Now that is a long story. The shortest version of it is that when I was 20 years old I was working as an archaeologist in a deep jungle Maya site in Guatemala. The site had been nearly destroyed by the looters. You could actually see tunnels made into each and every large temple in the area.
While I was there, the locals who were working with us told me that a nearby archaeological site had been looted and that someone had been killed over it. This turned out to be true and I realized from that point on that I could not just ignore the issue and be a normal archaeologist. I had to work to understand why heritage sites were targets for theft and work on ways to protect the ancient past that I love. Thus, that is what I have been doing for the past 13 years.
NS: You have been researching on South American and Latin American antiques from a very long time. How have been your experience dealing with these art markets?
DY: It has been interesting to say the least. One very interesting aspect of it is that the words and terms that the art market uses to talk about Latin American antiquities are very different from what archaeologists use. At times, and even to this day, the art market calls the items “Tribal Art” or “Primitive Art”, yet there is nothing primitive about these cultures at all. These were vast, complex cultures.
The Maya, for example, had written history, poetry, and drama. They were also into sophisticated astronomy and mathematics that included a concept of ‘zero’ which even the Greeks didn’t have. When the Spanish first saw the Aztec capital city, they felt it was more beautiful and sophisticated than any city in Europe at the time. To say they are “Tribal” or “Primitive” reflects a generally racist attitude which I think has long been part of the market for ancient Latin American art: an attitude that sees these items as simply ‘art’ rather than important components of larger, beautiful cultures.
NS: What made you turn your attention towards Sacred Arts, especially in relation to Hindu arts dominant in India and Nepal? Please share regarding your Stolen-Gods project.
DY: As you know I had been working in Latin America for quite a few years. Over the past three years it became clear to me that the real hot spot for theft in Latin America was not archaeological sites, not ancient places, rather it was the very old churches throughout those countries. These churches, some of which are 500 years old, are filled with all sorts of sacred art: paintings, gold and silver, icons, etc. They are also often located in tiny villages and have poor security. They are what is being targeted. However very few people are monitoring church theft specifically. No one is looking at it academically.
As I started to work on this subject, I began to look for similar situations outside of Latin America. Places where you have many sacred sites, a lot of sacred art, and a specific type of security issue.You can’t just remove the sacred art or lock the door at all times because that would mean that people cannot worship their gods. That brought me to India and Nepal: it is exactly the same issue as Latin American churches.
When I began to look at India and Nepal, I started the Stolen Gods website. Currently, I am using it to collect and share media stories of Sacred Art theft, smuggling, recovery, and protection. I want to bring that information together so that people interested in the topic can use it.
NS: What are the similarities and differences between South Asian situation and Latin American or South American situation with respect to the business of stolen art?
DY: In both locations you have many sacred buildings filled with sacred art. This art is desirable in the art market and thus vulnerable to theft. Also you have a situation where you can’t remove the sacred art to a more secure location without depriving the community of their heritage and culture. In both locations there is also a long history of sacred art theft.
One difference I think is where the stolen sacred art goes i.e. where the market is. Latin American sacred art that is stolen, often either stays in Latin America or moved to the US or Europe. For South Asian Art, although Europe and the US are clearly locations where this art goes, I think that both China and the Gulf states might be emerging as the primary market locations for items stolen from India. I can’t promise this as my research into this topic is preliminary, but anecdotally this is the case.
NS: Even though art smuggling has become a global phenomenon, many people do not have a clear picture regarding the extent of this black market. Are there any estimates regarding this, with respect to India?
DY: That is a very difficult question to answer. I don’t think we have good numbers on sacred art theft from India. One issue is how police worldwide classify theft. If the police do not specify in their records, whether a theft is of an art or of some other objects, then it is nearly impossible for researches to compile the number of art thefts. I am not sure if that is the case in India but it is the case nearly everywhere.
For the most part, in looking at India, I have been looking at media reports. This is, of course, incomplete but it gives a very rough idea of the rate of sacred art theft. In the past few months, in just the English language Indian media (as well as the Hindi and Tamil media that is indexed in English so that I can find it) I am seeing some form of sacred art theft nearly every other day and this is excluding theft of, say, donation boxes. I am talking about theft of idols, jewelry on idols, or sacred decorative elements in temples. Yes, there are a lot of big and small temples in India, but that is still quite a lot of theft. The question, then, is where is it all going? That I don’t have an answer for.
NS: You are currently visiting Nepal till 19th July. Can you tell us regarding the work you are currently doing in Nepal?
DY: I am here to look at how the country has dealt with sacred site security both before and after the earthquake. In the aftermath of this horrible tragedy, there was a lot of talk about the possibility of sacred art theft from ruined homes and temples. Despite the possibility, there have been very, very few reported thefts. I think this is great and I want to see what stakeholders here did to effect that.
Also, as Nepal rebuilds, I am hoping to observe how the issue of heritage site security is being approached- will there be alarms and locks or will they be exploring other forms of security at temple sites?
Finally, as you may know, Nepal has had a similar problem as India when it comes to the theft and trafficking of sacred art. Nepali art and Indian art end up in the same collections, sold by the same dealers, and may have even followed some of the same trafficking routes in the past and present. I want to look into this past and see if things have changed.
But this is all very new. I spent December 2014 in Nepal planning to do a very preliminary, slow moving project and I meant to be in India. However, with the earthquake, I have put my India plans on hold a bit so that I can observe this unique situation.
NS: Can you shed some light regarding how artifacts are classified in general and how their value and prices are decided in the global markets?
DY: This is a difficult question. For the most part prices are decided based on how much money has been earned from similar objects in the past. International auctions sort of set the baseline prices and individual dealers set their prices accordingly. But that is for the so-called licit market.
The illicit market is a bit more difficult. Prices in the illicit market and along the smuggling chain are based on risk and at times, level of desperation. A good example of this is the now famous Nataraja that was stolen in Tamil Nadu in 2006 and ended up in the National Gallery of Australia (and is now back in India).
The thieves who were contracted to steal the piece were paid about 6000USD. The National Gallery of Australia paid the dealer Subhash Kapoor 5.5 million USD! Thus the people at the bottom who took all the risk were paid the least, but the man at the top who could portray the object as ‘clean’ and a ‘safe buy’ was able to command a very high price.
When it comes to classification, I would argue that on the market, Sacred Indian art is seen more as “Art” than either “Sacred” or “Ancient”. This is an important distinction. If you remove it from its sacred context, you don’t have to think about the cultural loss experienced by the people who no longer have the holy object in their temple. It is just art, nothing else.
If you don’t think of it as “ancient” or as “antiquity” (even if it is a thousand years old), you don’t have to think about the destruction of archaeological sites or the laws broken to get the statue to you. I think a lot of classification on the art market is to remove the real context of the pieces, to make them art above everything else.
NS: Can you tell us about the modus operandi of art and artifact smuggling? I mean, how they procure their objects, how they smuggle it out of countries and how they convince museums and galleries to purchase them?
DY: I think each smuggling network (or individual) is different. People who are interested in serving as middle men, make it known that they are in the market for particular types of art or antiquities and those willing to steal those items do so. Then the items are moved out of the country in a number of ways: by hand, disguised as tourist souvenirs, or through the post. Then they are sold often to collectors who either don’t know that they should check the history of the objects, or don’t really care. Sometimes some false paperwork is made along the way. For the most part, I think that is how the theft and trafficking of smaller, low cost objects work.
When it comes to big items, you need a big and sophisticated operation. It is worth looking into Subhash Kapoor again for this as his operation was truly shocking. He would export the art, routing the items through several ports so that they would pick up a paper trail. He listed them falsely on export and import documents (once as stone garden furniture I believe) and would eventually make up false histories, and false paperwork that he would present to museums.
The Paperwork would make the item appear to have been outside of India before the relevant legislation came into effect. The museums, of course, could have checked up on this paperwork but they chose not to. They only saw what they wanted to see.
NS: How did a well-known and a reputed gallery like National Gallery of Australia end up in possession of stolen artifacts?
DY: The main issue with the National Gallery of Australia is something that in criminology is called creative compliance. This is something that my criminologist colleague Simon Mackenzie is working on. Creative Compliance is when someone conforms to the exact wording of the law or of a regulation, but not the spirit of it.
In other words, they do what they have to do to look good on paper but make sure that they don’t find anything that they don’t want to find. In the case of the National Gallery of Australia, they wanted these pieces and that was the driving force. They nominally checked the provenance of the pieces, using only the paperwork supplied to them by the dealer, decided that everything was in order, and made the purchase.
They, however, did not bother to check the authenticity of the paperwork, to contact the alleged previous owners of the pieces, or (most importantly) law enforcement or specialists in India. A simple phone call to the Tamil Nadu police may have saved them 5.5million USD and a lot of shame.
Clearly their system was very broken. This is why Australia has completely reformed their provenance checking and are reviewing their collections. I respect them quite a bit for admitting that they were wrong and trying to fix their mistake.
NS: Can you shed more light about provenances?
DY: Well I think the biggest issue when it comes to provenance is that we do not have an international system of import and export permits for art like we do for, say, wildlife. Because each country has different standards when it comes to art import and export, middlemen and traffickers can ‘game the system’.
They can send stolen objects through more open transit locations with more relaxed import and export rules so that the stolen objects pick up a ‘legitimate’ history. If every art object is needed to have a standard, certified export permit from its country of origin before it could enter any other country or be sold, it would be a lot harder to launder these objects.
NS: India has been often criticized for having a toothless law that is inefficient to handle art-thefts, and for lacking proper awareness and infrastructure to safeguard the artifacts and prevent smuggling. What are your views regarding this?
DY: In this issue, India is not alone. Many countries are in the same position. Even in locations where there are very tough laws and harsh penalties for looting and trafficking of antiquities, enforcing those laws is often impossible or just ignored at the high level.
When it comes down to it, I think the police look at their priorities and decide they have bigger problems to deal with than art theft. I don’t think that is an entirely unfair way to look at the things, but that just makes me want to work harder on alternative forms of security for sacred sites and sacred arts; community protection for example. Or perhaps proper documentation of all art objects in sacred sites and a community level initiative that both instills pride in these sacred objects and lets everyone know that an object that has been properly documented is unsellable and thus not worth stealing.
What I am trying to say is that my work has looked at why laws and legislation fail and one of the main reasons is that the laws rarely take into account the needs of the communities and the specifics of the situation ‘on-the-ground’.
NS: Can you elaborate on Community protection?
DY: A focus on community involvement in the documentation of art within sacred sites (not just someone from the government or the ASI coming in and doing it), which would accompany community level discussions about both protection of these sites and the realities of the art market is very necessary.
An object that has been properly documented is very difficult to sell on the art market. Even buyers who are willing to buy stolen objects don’t want to spend money on objects that are easily shown to be stolen. Presenting this to communities and then having them help with photographing, measuring etc. of art could go a long way.
NS: What are your future plans? Any new projects that you are taking up?
DY: I have a lot of plans! Outside of research, I am developing an online masters-level series of courses for the University of Glasgow focused on Antiquities Trafficking, Art Crime, and Repatriation of Cultural property and South Asia will feature in all of those. I am also developing a free MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) which will go live in February on the same topic.
When it comes to research, Stolen Gods is actually a 3 year focused research project that I plan on working on. It will include further fieldwork in India as well as some work in Guatemala and Peru. This will be the core focus of my research for the next three years. I plan to apply for some additional funding for this and get some PhD students involved in the work. We will see. This project will focus on finding alternative security solutions for sacred sites as well as trying to shed some light on the market itself.
NS: Anything else you want to share regarding artifacts and stolen arts?
DY: One thing I would like to say, regarding India. I am very active, as you know, on Twitter. Even though the Stolen Gods site and my own twitter account doesn’t just focus on South Asia, I have found that the Indian community online is one of the most active and passionate community about this topic. I am not saying that people in other parts of the world don’t care about their sacred art, they very much do, but over the past year I have had such passionate and positive response from people in India about this research that I am very encouraged. For heritage protection, it is important that preservation reflect the needs and desires of the people and it seems that India is very passionate about protecting its heritage. I love it!