By Nithin Sridhar
Hundreds of arts, antiquities, sacred icons, and sacred idols are stolen every year from across the world. Many of them make their way into various museums and galleries as legitimate pieces of art and antiques.
In India, every other week some idols from remote temples are stolen and shipped out of the country. These idols are not just icons of the past, having antique values, but they are the abode of the living deities. Hence, when these idols are stolen, there is not just a loss of artifacts having rich history and heritage value, but there is also a loss of “living” icons through which the common people connect with their Gods, having invoked the presence of Gods into those icons and idols.
Hence, this theft and trafficking of sacred art, is not just a theft of art or antique but is also a theft of sacredness, a theft of the abode of the Gods that people worship.
But, in the art market, says Dr. Donna Yates, “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.”
Dr. Donna Yates is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research at the University of Glasgow, who is currently visiting Nepal till 19 July, to observe heritage site security measures following the country’s April earthquake.
In an exclusive interview with NewsGram, Dr. Yates said: “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.”
When asked, what made her to take interest in sacred arts thefts in India, Dr. Yates told that when she was researching on the thefts of sacred arts in Latin American churches, she searched for other places having similar thefts.
“Places where you have many sacred sites, a lot of sacred art, and a specific type of security issue: that the sites must be accessible for common people to use them. 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.”
Regarding the modus operandi of the art thieves, Dr. Yates shared that, though each smuggling network is different, usually the middle men let it be known in the market that they are in look out for certain kinds of artefacts and the thieves steal those items for them. Then the small objects are often taken out of the country by sending them through post or taking them in person as tourist souvenirs.
But, when it comes to big items, she said: “you need a big and sophisticated operation. It is worth looking into Subhash Kapoor 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.”
Citing the example of the Nataraja statue which was stolen from Tamil Nadu and then sold to National Gallery of Australia (but is now back in India), Dr. Yates adds that:
“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 asked to shed light about provenances that are so easily falsified by shady dealers and used to fool museums and galleries, Dr. Yates said: “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.”
Listing out the measures that can be taken to prevent art thefts, Dr. Yates stressed on the need to involve the local community and to properly document the sacred icons. She said:
“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.”
The interview ended with Dr. Yates sharing her experience regarding her interactions with Indians on Twitter: “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!”