We have been regularly hearing our rich antiques being regularly auctioned abroad and we are unable to do anything about it. It’s true that administrative negligence and lack of maintenance have led to many of Corbusier and Jeanneret’s chairs, bookshelves, benches, tables, lamps and other fixtures disappearing from Chandigarh and appearing at international auctions, where they routinely fetch high prices.
India has rich cultural heritage but at the same time we have a track record of poor implementation of antiquities protection law which is also aided to an extent by bureaucratic apathy, thereby making our country a fertile ground for loot and smuggling of antiquities for sale in the International market. There has also been growing concerns over antiques being smuggled and sold to fund terrorists’ activists.
Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is entrusted with the task of protecting our heritage sites and antiques. But ASI with its depleted workforce is more concerned about the maintenance and conservation of existing and listed heritage sites than protecting antiques. Further, ASI doesn’t have an integrated database of existing and stolen artefacts and in such a situation ASI will always be fumbling in the dark while the antiques make their way to collectors’ shelves. Even those antiquities which we find in museums are poorly maintained and most of them are in need of restoration and conservation. In most cases, the objects received for conservation are already damaged beyond restoration.
Once the artefacts/antiquities leave the Indian shore (through illegal means) bringing them back home is an uphill task. Then efforts to retrieve and get them back to the country have to be done within the parameters of the UNESCO Convention of 1970, to which India is signatory. The Archaeological Survey of India has to prove that the object/sculpture in question is covered under the definition of Antiquities and Art Treasure Act, 1972 and exported in violation of this Act. The basic difficulty faced for the retrieval of the object is to prove the ownership/provenance in absence of FIR or theft report lodged against the object. Usually, it is strenuous and time-consuming task with low success rate.
Our Antiquities and Art Treasure law itself often deters the people from registering their antiquities with ASI. Further registering with ASI is also very cumbersome and difficult procedure and as a result of which there are very few registered antiquities by the collectors of antiquities. Its also true that the investigative agency dealing with theft/ smuggling of antiques lack expertise in dealing with such cases. Most of the resources in this regard are concentrated at the centre with very few state governments having resources and expertise to deal with such cases.
It’s also true that India as nation does not have a comprehensive policy for the management of antiquities. Further, we do not have any standards for acquisition, preservation, documentation and custody of objects. At the same time, there are several international standards available for managing antiquities in a museum issued by International Council of Museums (ICOM) and UNESCO but are rarely followed in our country. As a result, India has become a country with rich and abundant antiquities with antiquated laws to manage and preserve them. In short, we are a happy hunting ground for antique thieves. Its high time that we take cognizance of lacunae in our Acts and make amendments to ensure an effective law to protect our antiquities.