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The last dance? Scandal surrounds the NGA’s allegedly stolen Shiva statue

31 March 2014

On 26 March, a bronze sculpture of the Hindu god Shiva was removed from public display at the National Gallery of Australia. While the object symbolises Hinduism and the artistic virtuosity of Tamil Nadu in south India, it has now come to represent controversy and scandal. The 900 year-old artefact was purchased for $5 million USD in 2008 from Art of the Past, a Manhattan-based gallery owned by antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is currently on trial in India for looting and is wanted in the United States for purportedly orchestrating a large-scale smuggling operation of South Asian antiquities.

Photographic evidence demonstrates that this sculpture of Dancing Shiva (Nataraja) was stolen from a temple in Sripuranthan in Tamil Nadu 30 years ago. Kapoor’s business associate, Selina Mohamed, and his gallery manager, Aaron Freedman, created false ownership history of the object. Mohamed faces criminal charges for fabricating the provenance history of numerous objects and Freedman has already pleaded guilty to six criminal counts in December.

As a result of the evidence demonstrating that the statue was stolen, the NGA filed a $5 million USD lawsuit against Kapoor and his gallery for ‘fraudulently induc[ing] NGA to acquire the Shiva by making misrepresentations and false assurances concerning the history of the Shiva’. While there have been many instances of museums having to return objects to countries, it remains unusual – perhaps unprecedented – for a museum to file a law-suit against dealers, who are obligated to provide warranties guaranteeing good titles to the objects.

Although the NGA claims to have conducted due diligence, they only did so ‘optically’. For example, while they consulted the Tamil Nadu Idol Police website, they did not contact the police themselves, and relied on the documents and guarantees provided by Kapoor – which were forged – without checking them. Furthermore, on 24 March, the Australian documentary programme Four Corners aired an hour-long report on how the NGA ignored the advice of their attorney, who cautioned the museum about the considerable risks of purchasing the sculpture.

Now, the Indian government has formally requested the return of the bronze Shiva statue within the next 30 days. The first secretary of India’s High Commission, Tarun Kumar, believes that the statue will be returned. A spokeswoman said that the museum would cooperate fully with the government and the investigation.

As this whirlwind saga surrounding the bronze Shiva continues, more and more questions arise. How much responsibility should museums take when confronted with this type of situation? How much due diligence should a museum perform? How can a museum perform due diligence if the papers provided by the dealer are falsified? Shouldn’t museums return an object if there is evidence of questionable provenance without waiting for a formal request?

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