The National Gallery of Australia will return 14 artworks to India | Illustration: Ramandeep Kaur
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New Delhi: The National Gallery of Australia announced Thursday it will return 14 works of art from its Asian art collection to the Indian government. These include 13 works connected to jailed art dealer Subhash Kapoor, in prison for allegedly running an international smuggling racket, and one acquired from late New York-based art dealer William Wolff.

Worth a combined $3 million, the works include six bronze or stone sculptures, a brass processional standard, a painted scroll and six photographs. They were acquired by the museum between 1989 and 2009, and some date back to the Chola dynasty.

The museum concluded that many of the works were likely looted or stolen in India.

“This is the right thing to do, it’s culturally responsible and the result of collaboration between Australia and India. We are grateful to the Indian Government for their support and are pleased we can now return these culturally significant objects,” said NGA Director Nick Mitzevich in a statement.

Welcoming NGA’s decision, Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Manpreet Vohra said, “The Government of India is grateful for this extraordinary act of goodwill and gesture of friendship from Australia”.

“These are outstanding pieces: their return will be extremely well-received by the government and people of India,” he added.

The physical handover of the works will be negotiated over the next couple of months, given Covid-19 concerns, said Mitzevich.

Speaking to ThePrint, Adwaita Gadnayak, director general of the government-run National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi, said: “This is a great decision made by Australia. It’s good for India’s national pride and for works of art to be rightly returned to their place of origin.”

‘Embarrassment’ surrounding works acquired by Kapoor

According to Sydney Morning Herald, the presence of Kapoor’s objects in its collection has been a long-running source of embarrassment for the NGA.

In 2014, the museum agreed to return a $5 million statue of Shiva, as Lord of the Dance, to India, which had been acquired from Kapoor. It was one of the two statues handed over to PM Narendra Modi by then Australian PM Tony Abbott in September that year. This was after it emerged that the 900-year-old Shiva statue had been looted from a temple in Tamil Nadu.

This is the fourth time the NGA has returned to India illegally exported works purchased from Kapoor, his associates or from his gallery ‘Art of the Past’ in Manhattan, New York.

The previous instances occurred in 2014, 2016 and 2019.

In 2014, the Shiva statue, purchased in 2008 for $5.6 million, was returned to India along with a sculpture Kapoor had sold to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

In 2016, a 12th-century stone sculpture of Goddess Pratyangira and a third century limestone sculpture from Andhra Pradesh were returned to India.

In 2019, the NGA repatriated a pair of 15th-century stone door guardians, or dvarapala, from Tamil Nadu, and a sixth- to eighth-century stone sculpture, the serpent king, or Nagaraja, from either Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh.

In its statement Thursday, the museum explicitly stated that with this last repatriation, it will no longer hold any works acquired through Kapoor in its collection.

Kapoor was arrested in Frankfurt, Germany in 2011 after Indian investigators alerted Interpol that they had evidence connecting Kapoor to looted antiquities from southern India. Presently, he is awaiting trial in India and is subject to an extradition request from the Manhattan District Attorney.

Speaking to ThePrint, art critic and director of Critical Collective, Gayatri Sinha explained that in 2013, France returned the 10th century Vrishanana Yogini sculpture. It had been stolen from an ancient temple in Uttar Pradesh.

“India’s material culture has been so vulnerable to loot that government must spend on documenting and making public collections in small holdings, temples, forts etc. If we have documentary proof, we have the first important step to repatriation.”

India should also draw inspiration from Greek culture minister Melina Mercouri who made repatriation of Greek artefacts her “life’s mission”, she added.

Also read: Stone image of Durga, Nataraja idol & more — 36 antiques ASI recovered from UK, US, Australia

List of works

The works being returned are:

— Chola dynasty (9th-13th centuries), The child-saint Sambandar, 12th century, purchased 1989

— Chola dynasty (9th-13th centuries), The dancing child-saint Sambandar, 12th century,

purchased 2005

— Hyderabad, Telangana, India, Processional standard [‘alam], 1851, purchased 2008

— Mount Abu region, Rajasthan, India, Arch for a Jain shrine, 11th-12th century, purchased 2003

— Mount Abu region, Rajasthan, India, Seated Jina, 1163, purchased 2003

— Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh, India, The divine couple Lakshmi and Vishnu [Lakshmi Narayana], 10th-11th century, purchased 2006

— Gujarat, India, Goddess Durga slaying the buffalo demon [Durga Mahisasuramardini], 12th-13th century, purchased 2002

— Rajasthan, India, Letter of invitation to Jain monks; picture scroll [vijnaptipatra], c. 1835, purchased 2009

— Lala D. Dayal, India, Maharaja Sir Kishen Pershad Yamin, 1903, purchased 2010

— Udaipur, Rajasthan, India, not titled [‘Manorath’ portrait of donor and priests before Shri

Nathji, Udaipur, Rajasthan], unknown date, purchased 2009

— Guru Das Studio, not titled [Gujarati family group portrait], purchased 2009

— Shanti C. Shah, Hiralal A Gandhi memorial portrait, 1941, purchased 2009

— Venus Studio, India, not titled [Portrait of a man], 1954, purchased 2009

— Udaipur, Rajasthan, India, not titled [Portrait of a woman], unknown date, purchased 2009

Also read: Why a New York-based smuggler dumped $20 million worth of Indian art


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