Idol cru­sade

In­side the global fight against the il­le­gal an­tiq­ui­ties trade

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

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

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