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Suspect NGA artworks to be repatriated

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Fourteen pieces from the National Gallery of Australia’s Asian art collection with questionable procurement will be returned to the Indian government.

Worth a combined $3 million, 13 of the objects were purchased between 2002 and 2010 from Art of the Past, the now-infamous New York gallery run by disgraced antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor. And one came from the late New York art dealer William Wolff in 1989.

They comprise six stone or bronze sculptures, most dating back to the 11th or 12th century, as well as a brass processional standard, or ‘alam’, from Hyderabad dated 1851.

There is a painted invitation scroll, or vijnaptipatra, from Rajasthan dated approximately 1835, and six photographs.

NGA director Nick Mitzevich confirmed the gallery had in-principle agreement from the Indian government through the Indian High Commission that they welcomed and would receive the works.

“The physical handover will be negotiated over the next couple of months, giving consideration to COVID and the ability to travel, as to whether it’s realistic to have it in India or Canberra,” Mr Mitzevich said.

This is the fourth time the NGA has returned to India looted or illegally exported works purchased from Mr Kapoor and his associates.

In early 2014 revelations emerged that Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja), one of the 22 works the gallery acquired from Art of the Past, had been looted from a temple in Tamil Nadu in southern India.

The 11th or 12th century Chola-period bronze, purchased in 2008 for $5.6 million, was returned to India by then-prime minister Tony Abbott in September 2014, along with a sculpture Kapoor had sold to the Art Gallery of NSW.

Two years later, the NGA returned Goddess Pratyangira, a 12th-century stone sculpture from Tamil Nadu and Worshippers of the Buddha, a third century limestone sculpture from Andhra Pradesh.

And 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.

Thursday’s announcement comes as the gallery adopts a new provenance assessment that will consider both the legal and ethical aspects of a work of art’s history.

If, on the balance of probability, it is likely that a work was stolen, illegally excavated, exported in contravention of the law of a foreign country, or unethically acquired, the NGA states it will initiate steps to deaccession and repatriate the work.

Mr Mitzevich said the measure was a positive step in resolving a difficult and unfortunate period in the gallery’s collecting history.

“With these developments, provenance decision-making will be determined by an evidence-based approach evaluated on the balance of probabilities, anchored in robust legal and ethical decision-making principles and considerations,” he said.

Mr Kapoor, a dual citizen of India and the US, established Art of the Past in 1974 and became an influential and respected figure in the global art market, selling and donating works to many prestigious institutions.

Clients included the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts as well as the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, the NGA and the Art Gallery of NSW.

He was extradited from Germany to India by Interpol in July 2012 and is in custody charged with stealing and illegally exporting antiquities. If convicted, he could be jailed for up to 14 years.

In July 2019, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office filed a criminal complaint against Mr Kapoor and seven co-conspirators, charging them with 86 counts of grand larceny, possession of stolen property and conspiracy to defraud.

His co-defendants include dealers in Hong Kong and Singapore, and art restorers in Brooklyn and London.

It is alleged they operated a sophisticated network that saw antiquities looted from countries including Afghanistan, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Documents were allegedly forged and ownership histories invented before they were placed on sale at Art of the Past.

Mr Kapoor is alleged to have masterminded the global smuggling ring between 1986 and 2016, trafficking more than 2600 looted objects worth US$145 million into the US.

No donors were involved in the acquisition of the 14 NGA works in question. Their combined value stands at $3,034,865, and Mr Mitzevich said the gallery would be taking a reduction in its asset base by removing them.

“It’s more than likely that the six sculptures were either stolen or illegally exported,” he said.

“The rest have been removed from the collection because of the association with Mr Kapoor and because we believe that his dealings were not ethical. (However) we have no reason to believe that the other works were stolen or illegally exported,” he said.

The gallery is also removing the final three works in its Asian art collection purchased from Art of the Past. Once research has identified a place of origin, they will be repatriated.

One work may be from Afghanistan, another from India or Timor, and the third from India or Portugal, Mr Mitzevich said.

“With antiquities like this, country-of-origin is sometimes a little more difficult to pinpoint,” he noted.

“Borders are a contemporary manifestation, so we need to be clear about the region (the works) are from.”

Mr Mitzevich, who became NGA director in July 2018, said that since 2014, the gallery had strengthened its due diligence and provenance policies and now had clear processes for the assessment of works.

“The changes we’ve made mean that we now have zero tolerance for any provenance inconsistencies for any acquisitions across the collection,” he said.

The Indian High Commissioner to Australia, Manpreet Vohra, welcomed news of the repatriation.

“The government of India is grateful for this extraordinary act of goodwill and gesture of friendship from Australia,” Mr Vohra said.

“These are outstanding pieces. Their return will be extremely well-received by the government and people of India.”

-AAP