March 16, 2009

Returning Gandhi’s property to India

Posted at 5:36 pm in Similar cases

India was unsuccessful in preventing the sale of Mahatma Gandhi’s glasses. They have taken a stance though by making it clear that they will not be held to ransom over cultural property issues.

The Hindu

Who owns antiquity?

The world of antiquities is a murky and complex one where ownership is a contested space. Many Indian sculptures (and pieces of architecture) of immense historical value are still languishing in Western museums. In this context, it was naïve to expect Gandhi’s memorabilia to be returned voluntarily.

What do we make of it when a pair of old glasses, sandals and a small bowl is worth Rs.10 crore? Probably, partly in irritation and partly in disbelief, we can tweak Adorno’s phrase and declare that things concerning antiquities are not self-ev ident. The will to spend extraordinary money was led by the emotive potential it has or is imagined to have. When Gandhi’s memorabilia surfaced in the auction house, emotional appeal and ultra nationalist sentiments coalesced and the bidding mutated into a proxy fight for pride.

The fact that India has many of Gandhi’s watches, spectacles and other objects which are fairly representative of his values and the life he lived, did not deter the shrillness. It only helped cover what was demanded in the name of being “priceless” — a vulgar high sum. It also gave James Otis, the collector who sold Gandhi’s memorabilia, an opportunity to play the enlightened by demanding the government spend more on health. The drama ended with Vijay Mallya acquiring the objects at a price that was 60 times more than the base price fixed by the auction house.
Underlying assumption

In the whole episode, the underlying assumption was that all Indian cultural objects belonged to the country. What was required to secure them was a wilful and strong government. If that fails, a fat cheque would do the job. Nothing could have been more naïve than this. In the hypocritical, complex world of antiquities, the question who rightfully owns the object is never taken seriously, leave alone answered properly. Neither has that question helped much in restituting them. Probably Indians have forgotten their travails of recovering more precious antiquities in the past.

We can begin with the story of Vaman Ghiya. Ghiya was an owner of a handicrafts shop in Jaipur, but that was only a front. In reality, he was one of the largest antique smugglers in India. Thieves and middle men would scout for less protected temples and museums across India and steal the objects for him. When orders were placed, the antiquities would be shipped abroad along with hundreds of other legitimate handicrafts packed in large containers. They would arrive in the auction houses and reach the museums and private collectors. In 2003, after a year-long surveillance, the police arrested Ghiya. Writing in The New Yorker (May 2007), Patrick Keefe, narrates how “antique paintings, swords and shields, marble panels, stone pillars, three hundred and forty-eight pieces of sculpture, and a dismantled Mogul pavilion the size of a small house” were discovered by the police. Rohit Parihar reported in India Today (June 2003) that “34 catalogues each of Sotheby’s and Christie’s on Indian and South-east Asian art along with other loots” were also found. Ghiya identified “700 antiquities” which figured in the catalogue as his contribution.
Murky dealings

Even as early as 1997, Peter Watson’s explosive book titled Sotheby’s: The Inside Story and his television serial exposed how Ghiya was involved with the auction houses. Following Watson’s expose, Sotheby’s closed its antiquities desk in London and operated through its New York office. But in 2000, according to Keefe’s reports, a Jain Tirthankara stolen by Ghiya turned up in Sotheby’s catalogue. Sotheby’s denied any links and claimed it belonged to a New York dealer. The Ministry of Culture in 2007 listed 13 objects that are yet to be brought back to India, one of them was the Jain Tirthankara.

Though accurate figures are not available, antiquity trading is roughly estimated to be a multi billion dollar industry. Investigations have repeatedly shown that much of what is traded have suspicious provenance. Interpol considers illicit trading to be as prevalent and menacing as arms and drug trafficking. Their website lists about 431 art objects as reported stolen in the last two months. It also publishes a list of the six most wanted works of art every six months. The recent list, released in December 2008, includes a stone Siva stolen from an Indian archaeological site.

The case of stolen antiquities appears straightforward. The legal and ethical position would be that all stolen antiquities must be returned to their proper owners. But this seldom happens. To the auction houses and museums, as the ICOM UK report titled “Stealing History” indicts, only “the material that counted, not the manner of its first acquisition”.

The flow is carefully planned to make ownership claims difficult. Reports show that the rogue dealers often ship the stolen goods to Europe (many times to Switzerland) where it acquires a new owner. (Ghiya too had a Swiss front office.) It is then shipped to London and New York. When the objects land in the auction house it carries a respectable address and when acquired by museums the “illicit objects become licit”.

In 1982, on receiving a tip, the Indian High Commission in London alerted the London police and confiscated the Pathur Nataraja bronze that was displayed in the British Museum. This icon was stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu and sold to an antique collector in 1977. A conservator from the British museum, in her private capacity, was involved in its restoration. A long legal battle ensued and the British museum contested the ownership. Even the entomologists were summoned to inspect and testify the termite runs on the icon. The case was eventually settled in India’s favour in 1991.

The story of the Sivapuram Nataraja bronze stolen in 1950s is equally frustrating. This stolen idol was bought by the Norton Simon Foundation in the U.S. which planned to display it at the Metropolitan museum in New York in 1973. The Government of India intervened and pressed a law suit for its return. An out of court settlement was reached allowing Simon Foundation to display the icon for 10 years and return it. In the bargain, Simon Foundation got to keep the rest of the Indian collection.

If this is the state of antiquities stolen now, to claim ownership of antiquities removed in the past, from erstwhile colonies, becomes even more difficult. Elgin Marbles is a case in point.

Sculptural pieces removed from the Parthenon by Lord Elgin in the early 19th century was sold to the British government in 1816 and housed in the British Museum. The Greeks have been asking for its return since 1833, since they consider Parthenon marbles as their national heritage. On the other hand, the British government and the Museum question their claim of ownership and the marbles have not returned to Greece. Similarly, the Rosetta stone, a crucial link in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics, was removed from Egypt by the French. The British took possession of it in 1802 and the stone is now a priced exhibit in the British Museum. The Egyptian government has been demanding its return since 2003. Even the request for a temporary loan was not considered. Recently, Chinese bronzes, pillaged in 1860 by the Anglo French troops, were auctioned despite protests and a Paris Court too refused to stay the proceedings.
Whose heritage?

Such refusals are increasingly finding support in the Western world. James Cuno, an important voice in the world of antiquities and the former director of the Harvard University Art Museum declares that cultural objects of great importance belong to the world and not just to the nations of origin. In the interest of heritage, he demands, that they are best left in the museums of Western world where they are well cared for. In his popular book Who owns Antiquity? he declares that the young nations did not exist in the past, implying that the loot during the colonial period was a historical fate and need not be undone. Such colonial hangovers are condescending and help invent new barriers to any possible recovery of cultural objects by the claimant nations.

Any claims of India, if ever made, on the Jade wine cups of Mughal emperors and the Amaravati marbles reposed in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum respectively would also wind up at the same dead end.

In this complex world of antiquities, the hope that Gandhi’s memorabilia would be returned since Gandhi belonged to India and he willed it so was a naïve assumption. Even the evocation of Gandhi’s will in favour of Navajivan Trust was weak. James Otis, the collector and the auction house had stated that the objects in question were gifted by Gandhi in his own lifetime to various people. It is doubtful whether the will can undo this. No evidence has so far surfaced to establish that Gandhi nullified the gifts he gave. Neither is there any complaint that the memorabilia was stolen. The possible course of action left was either to persuade the owner by appealing to his sentiments or outbid all the bidders. When the latter happened, the objects were sold for many times more than the reserved price. The cheer in the auction house camp would have matched the loud ring of their cash register.

The question whether Indians should own every bit of Gandhi can be set aside for the moment. Instead a resolve that such a ransom would never be paid again may help. Meanwhile, the museums in the country could be improved and made relevant to all, financial support to antiquities management could be enhanced, archaeological sites better protected and a knowledgeable security force created.

* * * *

Navajivan Trust

“We, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi age about years 60, Hindu, profession weaving and farming, residing at Satyagrahashrama, Vadaj, Taluka Uttar Daskroi, District Ahmedabad and Mohanlal Maganlal Bhatta, age about years 31, Hindu, residing at Bhoivadani Pole, Kalupur, Ahmedabad, declare by this Deed…..”

Thus begins the 1929 deed that transformed Navajivan Mudranalaya a private printing institution into a public charitable trust named Navajivan Trust. The objectives of the trust were to “propagate peaceful means for the attainment of Hind Swaraj i.e. Swaraj for India by educating the people”. Since then, the Trust has published about 800 titles in many languages. To its credit, the trust has kept the other objectives stipulated by Gandhi and has neither taken advertisements in its publications nor accepted any grant or donation.

* * * *

Gandhi’s Will

ANY WILLS that I may have made before this day stand cancelled and this be deemed as my last Will.

I do not believe that I have any property. Nevertheless, anything which by social convention or in law is considered mine: anything movable or immovable; books, articles etc. that I have written and may write hereafter, whether printed or not printed and all their copyright; I endow as my heirs the Navajivan Institution, whom I hereby declare as my heirs, and the Declaration of Trust for the establishment of which I along with Mohanlal Maganlal Bhatta got registered as a deed of trust on 26-11-1929 and of which Shri Vallabhbhai Jhaverbhai Patel, Shri Mahadev Haribhai Desai and Shri Narhari Dwarkadas Parikh are at present Trustees.

The Navajivan Trust will give to the Harijan Sevak Sangh for Harijan service, every year, after my demise, twenty-five per cent of the net profit that it carns out of the sale of the books mentioned above and out of the exercise of their copyright.

In order to execute my desire as expressed by this my Will and to make the necessary arrangements for it I appoint Bhai Mahadev Haribhai Desai and Narhari Dwarkadas Parikh as my executors. In the absence of any one of them by death or any other cause the other has the right to make the necessary arrangements and to execute this my Will.




Source: Navajivan Trust ( )

* * * *

Time limit for recovering cultural objects

The UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property adopted in 1970 and the International Institute for the Unification of Private Law (UNIDROIT) convention on Stolen antiquity adopted in 1995 have differing views on time limits for reclaiming cultural properties. While the UNESCO convention does not impose any time limit, the UNIDROIT convention imposes a period of three years from the time when the claimant knew the location of the cultural object and the identity of its possessor. It also states that the “Contracting State may declare that a claim is subject to a time limitation of 75 years”. However both these conventions cannot be retrospectively applied and can take effect only between nations which have accepted them. Even these conventions rely much on the respective National laws to repatriate antiquities.

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