Home Today's Paper Most Popular Video Gallery Photo Gallery
Subscription Blog Signin Register
Saturday, October 21, 2017 12:56:20 PM
Follow Us On: Facebook Twitter Twitter Twitter Twitter

Museums do not tell us all

Share your thought
Post a comment »
Read all () »

Rafia Zakaria :
If you took a walk around the major museums of world capitals, the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London or the Metropolitan Museum in New York, you would undoubtedly encounter a vast number of ancient objects from faraway corners of the world. If you were among the truly interested, you could read the plaques affixed to the display that will tell you when the object was made and where it was found. Sometimes, you may even find a small story about the object, what it signified to those who lived long ago.
What the plaques almost never reveal is the "provenance" of the object, the record of origin that not only certifies authenticity, but also who owned it, who sold it and how it got from that faraway place to the museum shelf. At most, the names of donors who have loaned or gifted the object to the museum's collection are mentioned, a public "thank you" of sorts to the very generous and wealthy. How they got the object is, again, assumed to be nobody's business.
It should, in fact, be everybody's business. It is just these omitted or secret details of provenance that enable the billion-dollar illicit trade in antiquities to continue and thrive. Smugglers steal and sell, capitalising on moments of conflict, war and even natural disaster. Even extremist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) and the Taliban have also been known to sell antiquities to fill their own coffers. Art dealers with contacts in war torn regions buy and hoard, laying in wait for the most profitable time to sell. If the dealer has a history of selling authentic pieces, private collectors and even museums will subsequently gobble up the goods.
As the recent debacle over the US retailer Hobby Lobby's purchase of 5,500 antiquities smuggled out of Iraq illustrates, legal advice that questions the origins of the goods is often ignored.
The smuggling, undertaken over many years of shipments, was only discovered after US customs agents happened upon it after opening up a shipment which was supposed to contain garden ornaments. Many other shipments are never discovered and their origins remain unquestioned even as thousands of people gape at them on museum shelves.
It was not meant to be this way. In 1970, the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property was passed, making it the first international instrument dedicated to the fight against illicit trafficking of cultural property. Its passage attempted to create an umbrella legal instrument under which the varying laws of the 100 or so signatory nations could be gathered. More explicitly, it sought to curtail the smuggling and trade in illicit antiquities.
As Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino say in their book "Chasing Aphrodite: The Hunt for Looted Antiquities in the World's Richest Museum", the UNESCO convention reflected a "a consensus that the antiquity's value lies not just in its intrinsic beauty but also in its archaeological context - where it is found and how it is related to those surroundings".
None of its instruments, however, required museums to publicly reveal the provenance of objects in their collection.
It is perhaps for just that reason that the convention has had limited success, been unable to stop the trade in smuggled and stolen artifacts that was envisaged at its passing. In recent days, the looting of antiquities from Iraq and Syria has introduced thousands of stolen objects into the market. Sales of these goods are said to be funding jihadists in Europe and even ISIL itself.
Stealing the Dancing Shiva
One case that illustrates just how all the secret stealing and smuggling and procuring happens is that of the Dancing Shiva, a 900-year-old bronze statue, procured in 2008 by the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra.
In March 2014, almost six years after buying it, the gallery announced that it would be returning the statue. An investigation by Indian authorities has alleged that  the statue was stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu. New York-based art dealer Subhash Kapoor then took possession of it and sold it to the Australian museum.
Museums fight against having to reveal the provenance of objects precisely because they know that many of the objects in their vast collections have illicit histories behind them.
On official documents, Kapoor held that the statue had left India in 1970. The National Gallery looked at the documents, but never bothered to call or contact the people that Kapoor claimed to have got it from. Instead, they handed over a whopping $5.6m.
They were not alone. With no legal requirement to make provenance records public, museums in New South Wales, Chicago, Ohio, and New York all bought antiquities from Kapoor.
Subhash Kapoor's operation was vast, spanning many years and involving thousands of objects, mostly from South Asia. He may not have been caught if Indian authorities, who had been investigating him since 2009, had not tipped off US authorities to seize a shipment coming their way. It was sent in the name of a front company called Nimbus Import Exports and labelled "marble garden table sets".
Inside were over a thousand kilogrammes of stolen antiquities worth $100m. The shipment was seized and in 2011, Kapoor himself was arrested at Frankfurt Airport and extradited to India to face trial. When US authorities raided his gallery "Art of the Past" and storerooms in New York, they found over 2500 objects collectively worth $107.9m.
It was only following these seizures and the charges against Kapoor that the museums which had purchased objects from him realised that they would have to return these objects. The Australian National Gallery had to return the Dancing Shiva and the Toledo Museum of Art had to return a 1,000-year-old bronze statue of the Hindu god Ganesha.
The seizure of Iraqi artifacts in the Hobby Lobby case and the Kapoor case reveal how prevalent antiquities smuggling is. ISIL looted the ancient  Assyrian site of Nineveh and the Mosul  museum in 2015. In 2016, the Palace of Sennacherib was dismantled and the Roman theatre in Palmyra was destroyed.
It is very likely that artifacts from these sites already are or will be offered on the art market in the near future, their proceeds funding the group's activities. Dealers with contacts in the region will buy them, store them and eventually sell them to museums. These museums will undertake perfunctory investigations and hand over the cash, eager to display the items in their galleries.
Museums fight against having to reveal the provenance of objects precisely because they know that many of the objects in their vast collections have illicit histories behind them.
This secrecy, accepted as a norm in the world of art and antiquities, has, of course, enabled the world's large museums to build up enormous collections. The plunder of the colonial era continues - now with looted objects from the world's poor or war-ravaged countries.
The story of these antiquities must go beyond when and where they were found. Information should be made public about how artefacts were bought and sold, and if smuggling and subterfuge paved their paths to the shelves of faraway Western museums. It is that last story of procurement and provenance, omitted and untold, that continues to permit plunder.

(Rafia Zakaria is a lawyer and author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan, and Veil).

Add Rate

News Archive

Inside The New Nation

Football »

Giroud`s overhead kick gives Arsenal 1-0 win at Red Star

Agency :Olivier Giroud scored late in the second half for Arsenal to maintain its perfect Europa League campaign with a 1-0 win over 10-man Red Star Belgrade on Thursday.Five minutes after Milan Rodic was sent off for a second yellow card, Giroud struck with an overhead kick five minutes before ...

Entertainment »

Ali Fazal and Shriya Pilgaonkar come together for Web Series

Shriya Pilgaonkar who was appreciated for her Hindi film debut as Shahrukh Khan’s love interest in Fan and for her viral short film Jai Mata Di, is now going to be seen in a web show called Mirzapur produced by Farhan Akhtar and Ritesh Sidhwani for a global online platform ...

Editorial »

Flood victims yet to get enough support

GOVERNMENT and aid agencies have provided emergency relief for flood victims but not sufficient to settle flood victims as per media reports quoting Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD) researchers who tried to figure out the distribution system in the Haor areas. Over 37 lakh people were affected in the floods ...

City »

Islami Andolon Bangladesh brought out a rally in the city on Friday in protest against price hike of gas and electricity.


International »

Iranian Army chief, Assad discuss joint military strategy

Reuters, Beirut :Iran's military chief met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday during a visit to Damascus to set out a joint military strategy, Syria's state news agency reported, a sign of deepening Iranian influence that has alarmed Israel.General Mohammad Baqeri said Iran was determined to continue supporting the ...

Editorial »

Mr Xi`s new vision for China

CHINESE President Xi Jinping has laid out a far-reaching vision for a more prosperous nation and a dominating role for China in the world as the US President Donald Trump is working on a reverse way isolating his country from the world leadership role. In the domestic front he has ...

International »

May to urge EU leaders to speed up Brexit talks

AFP, Brussels :British Prime Minister Theresa May will appeal to European Union leaders at a crunch summit in Brussels on Thursday to push forward the deadlocked Brexit negotiations.At a meeting moved to a new venue at the last minute due to an eruption of toxic gas, May will urge her ...

Cricket »

Rangpur Riders recruit Brendon McCullum

Sports Reporter :Rangpur Riders have recruited wicketkeeper-batsman of New Zealand Brendon McCullum for the up coming fifth edition of Bangladesh Premier League (BPL).Chief Executive Officer of Rangpur Riders Ishtiaq Sadek said to the newsmen, " We have confirmed that McCullum will join our squad on November 15. He will play ...

Entertainment »

Titaan Chowdhury hosting `Sampan`

'Sampan' is one of the popular programmes of Chittagong centre of Bangladesh Television of present time. Dance, music, magic, etc are presented in this show. Popular face of the small screen Titaan Chowdhury is hosting this programme. Positive side is Titaan is hailed from Chittagong. So it becomes easier for ...

City »

BNP Chairperson Begum Khaleda Zia appeared before the Alia Madrasha Special Court in the city's Bakshibazar on Thursday seeking bail on Zia Orphanage Trust and Zia Charitable Trust Graft cases.

International »

Threats to start war with North Korea `dangerous, short-sighted`: Hillary

Reuters, Seoul :  Former U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday that "cavalier" threats to start war on the Korean peninsula are "dangerous and short-sighted", urging the United States to get all parties to the negotiating table.Clinton also called on China to take a "more outfront role" in enforcing ...

Sports »

U-12 School Handball Tournament begins tomorrow

Sports Reporter :The Atom Gum Under-12 School Handball (Boys' & Girls') Tournament begins tomorrow at the Shaheed (Captain) M Mansur Ali National Handball Stadium.Bangladesh Handball Federation will organize the handball meet under auspices of Pran Confectionary Limited.In this regard, a press conference was held at the Dutch-Bangla Bank Auditorium in ...

Editorial »

Diplomacy must work in Korean peninsula

THE Korean peninsula is closer to war again as a North Korean official reaffirmed on Monday Pyongyang's commitment to developing a long-range intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching "all the way to the East coast of the mainland US." He said his country is currently not interested in diplomacy with ...

Entertainment »

Only Sunny Leone could dare to wish Diwali in this unique manner

Sultry actress Sunny Leone who has millions of die-hard fans around the world has come up with a new video and that too in her own style. Sunny Leone has posted a new video in which she is wishing a Happy Diwali, especially to the boys. This video is, in ...

City »

Liberation Affairs Minister AKM Mozammel Haq speaking as Chief Guest at a discussion meeting organised by the BADC Sramik -Karmachari League on the occasion of its 56th founding anniversary of Bangladesh Agriculture Development Corporation (BADC) at its Conference Room yesterday.

Items that you save may be read at any time on your computer, iPad, iPhone or Android devices.
Are you new to our website? Do you have already an account at our website?
Create An Account Log in here
Email this news to a friend or like someone
Write a comment to this news