Inside the global fight against the illegal antiquities trade
By day, 40-year-old accountant Vijay Kumar is general manager for the Southeast Asia division of Mediterranean Shipping, the world’s largest container transit company. By night the Indian national is a self-styled antiquities crusader, campaigning against the theft of precious artefacts in his homeland.
Kumar, who was born in Tamil Nadu’s capital Chennai but who lives in Singapore, has become a key protagonist in the unfolding scandal around the international looted antiquities trade that has embroiled institutions across the world, including some in this country.
He became intrigued by the 900-year-old Dancing Shiva the National Gallery of Australia was forced to return to India last year when it was revealed to have been stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu. The idol was sold to the gallery by New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor. Since that time, Kumar, from his humble home office, has helped uncover information about numerous other dubious items in collections around the world.
Quietly spoken and methodical, Kumar is married with a son. But he admits that, beyond his family and busy day job, he is wedded to antiquities sleuthing.
Review has been in almost daily contact with Kumar for more than two years. At all hours he will fire off questions about artefacts he has discovered while trawling through the online databases of our public galleries. “Can you get a picture of the back of that statue for me? Can you find out who owned this? I’m not a journalist but I rang that workshop in Delhi and the owner there said he’d never sold antiquities of any kind ...”
Fluent in Tamil and English, with a web of contacts on the ground in India and, increasingly, internationally, Kumar has become a link between India and the English-speaking West, able to straddle the two cultures — one where he believes the theft of ancient antiquities continues apace, and the English-speaking West where, despite so much publicity, clients continue to seek out ancient treasures.
An initial interest in Indian history and art has since morphed into a voracious appetite for information, propelling him on a journey to rediscover his Hindu heritage along the way.
Kumar started a blog, Poetry in Stone, but failed to have the impact in India he sought. But that impact came once he started working with this newspaper and US antiquities blogger Jason Felch of Chasing Aphrodite. Kumar has since stopped writing his blog and has taken up directly lobbying ministers in the Indian government. He gives public talks about his discoveries, writes opinion pieces for Indian newspapers and has been working directly with American and Indian investigators. “I spend all my free time on this,” he says. Six thousand kilometres away, in the Asian collection at the National Gallery in Canberra, sits a pair of 600-year-old granite door guardians from southern India. The figures, for which the NGA paid $645,000 in 2005, are not actually guarding the entrance to the collection but are positioned on either side of a walkway within it. At 140cm tall, they would have been the size of an average human when they were created.
Heavily decorated with headdresses, bracelets, anklets, earrings, necklaces and flowing robes, the guardians — but for one of the godlike figures having lost a hand and nose — are are in remarkable condition.
Door guardians — or Dvarapala — were traditionally stationed outside temples to remind visitors of the all-pervasive gods inside. In Canberra this context has been lost. In the NGA, they exist as meaningless baubles, pretty Hindu trinkets plonked beside other temple items from other regions, other eras and other religions — taken, at some time or other, from the places for which they were created.
The gallery doesn’t know who made them, where exactly they came from or when they were created, beyond a 229-year window spanning southern India’s Vijayanagar empire (AD 1336 to 1565).
During the decade that Ron Radford was director of the NGA (his term expired last September and he has since been replaced by Gerard Vaughan), he bought so many Asian an- tiquities that by 2006 he was able to brag that Australia’s temple of high art had amassed the sixth largest museum collection of Indian art outside India. The problem for ethical collectors observing the affair was that since 1972 it has been illegal to take antiquities out of India without an export permit.
The gallery in Radford’s day put all the acquisitions on display, adhering to an art museum maxim that the visual was paramount and context the preserve of social history museums.
In a forum at last month’s Museums Australia annual conference, University of Melbourne art crime academic Robyn Sloggett rubbished that point of view as “bullshit”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, police in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu agree. With lim- ited resources they’re attempting to stymie what self-styled monuments man Kumar attests is a rampant illegal trade in Indian antiquities. The state police’s Idol Wing, which investigates antiquity theft and trafficking and which was integral to investigations leading to the 2011 arrest of alleged international kingpin Kapoor, has recently placed Tamil-language newspaper ads in India featuring photographs of the NGA’s door guardians, appealing to the public for information about them. Yet there they remain, proudly on public display in Australia’s flagship gallery. This month marks the second anniversary of
The Weekend Australian publishing on its front page pictures establishing the guardians and four other Indian antiquities were not, as Ka- poor claimed, from private collections but rather had been illegally removed from temples shortly before the NGA purchased them with allegedly doctored papers. The best known of those antiquities is the Dancing Shiva, the 900year-old Chola-era bronze bought by the NGA for $5.6 million in 2008.
It was a remarkable occasion last September when Tony Abbott handed back the rare idol to India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi after a sustained campaign by The Australian in conjunction with Kumar and Felch. The bronze is now safely stored in Tamil Nadu.
Pictures obtained and published by this newspaper of the southern Indian door guardians showed them outdoors, standing on the grass, a ragged white sheet behind them, at a time when the paperwork Kapoor supplied to the gallery — and which was not thoroughly checked by curators — attested they were in a prestigious private collection.
Since those revelations were made public, the statues have remained on display at the gallery in Canberra.
The Shiva was removed more than a year ago; in March, a Buddha the gallery had procured from a different New York dealer was taken off display.
Last December the gallery announced it would undertake a comprehensive review of its Asian collection, overseen by former High Court Judge Susan Crennan.
This review formalised investigations that were already under way and will take a year to complete. It will refer to tough new collecting guidelines released by the federal government last year in the light of the scandal.
Details of the first 70 pieces to be scrutinised
Singapore-based campaigner Vijay Kumar, top; the 600-year-old granite door guardians in the National Gallery of Australia, left