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Bringing back old riches to India

The Times of India is arguing (in a somewhat over-optimistic way) that India should emulate the campaigns for the return of the Elgin Marbles in an attempt to retrieve many of their own artefacts that are held by foreign museums.

The Times of India [1]

New duty for the neo-rich: Bring back old riches
MUMBAI: It seems that nothing less than a relentless battle and extreme perseverance will help us recover our lost antiquities. And Greece can sure provide us with some tips.

Agrees R Nagaswamy, Tamil Nadu’s former director of archaeology and vice-chancellor of Kancheepuram University , “Look at how Greece is keeping the pressure on the British to return the Elgin marbles by the time of the Athens Olympics. They’ve succeeded in getting many countries on their side—the British public as well—and who knows, soon the British Museum may succumb too. Why Greece , even smaller countries such as Nigeria and Sri Lanka are fighting to get their stolen art treasures back. India should start mobilising international opinion to recover some of its great antiquities,’’ says the veteran archaeologist.

National Gallery of Modern Art director Sarayu Doshi is also optimistic that such sustained campaigns will eventually lead to a radical change in the mindset of international museums.

“Cultural property rights are fast becoming a hot issue,’’ she observes, “Fifty years from now, we could well have a global policy on the compulsory restoration of cultural treasures to their original context.’’ Giving Mallya a pat on the back for restoring Tipu’s sword to Indian soil, scholars say that more rich Indians, especially NRIs, should try to buy back as many Indian antiquities as possible which crop up for sale at international auctions.

Incidentally, in Russia , a similar gesture was hailed as an act of patriotism by the Putin government, which recently felicitated Viktor Vekselberg, Russian oil and aluminium magnate, for spending $100 million to buy back nine be-jeweled 19th century Easter eggs—made for the czars by Faberge—from the Forbes publishing family in the US . The Bolsheviks had sold the eggs to ‘foreign capitalists’ to acquire funds for the then young Soviet state.

Jain’s view is that Indian missions abroad should alert NRIs, Indian art institutions and the government about the art objects that come up for sale at international auctions. “God knows, there’s enough money in this IT era to bring some of these treasures back,’’ he says. Art historian B N Goswami is all for the new rich bringing old riches back into India , but he thinks that it’s a somewhat idealistic suggestion.

Besides, he adds, recovering antiquities from abroad is a tricky proposition. “A number of objects that went out, went out legitimately— for instance, the Padshahnama, which was gifted by the Nawab of Oudh to Sir John Shore . We cannot ask for it back. While the Amravati sculptures were taken away, they were being burnt down at the site for lime,’’ he points out.

“Instead of hankering after what has vanished from our shores, we would do better to preserve what remains, indeed to buy back for our museums the wealth of art that lies in private hands in our own country,’’ Goswami advises. The total budget, Goswami says, is no more than Rs 10 crore, which is a minuscule sum.

“This should at least be doubled. The National Museum ’s purchase budget is just Rs 1 crore. Moreover, its purchase committee has not met for five years because of internal wrangling and controversial buying in the past,’’ he says.