Who's afraid of AATA and what is it afraid about?
by Art Bug
There are always two sides to the same problem. The brighter side and the darker side. When it comes to antiquities in India, the epicenter of this 'dark-and-bright' debate wrests around The Antiquities and Art Treasures act 1972.
First, let us look at the brighter side of things. From the beginning of the last decade there has been a resurgence of interest in antiquities of Indian origin among Indians both NRIs and those residing in the country. The champion of the cause has undoubtedly been the liquor-baron from Bangalore, now Bengaluru; Dr. Vijay Mallya. Most antiquities that have managed to come back home from foreign shores, especially England, has been due to him. It was he who in 2003 first set the trend by buying the Sword of Tipu Sultan which opened up the eyes of the Indian media towards bringing back pieces of their own history to the country.
Mallya followed this up by acquiring the much debated 'Gandhi Memorabilia' in 2009 from Antiquoram Auctions in New York. The Indian Government was averse to the concept of objects used by the Father of the Nation from going on sale. It was a prestige issue about which the Indian government unfortunately could do nothing and the sale went on as planned. It was left to Mallya to recover, those included Gandhi's famous round-rimmed glasses, a 1910 silver Zenith pocket watch, sandals, a bowl, a thali and letters of authenticity, and were bought for Rs 9 crore ($1.8 million), surpassing the highest estimate.
He followed up the 2003 acquisition of the sword by buying in a gold finial or throne head in 2009 again at a whopping £ 389,600. Unfortunately, when it has come to bringing back art and antiquity treasures to the country, it has always been Dr Vijay Mallya who has gone for them, at least as far as the written and publicized records show. One reason being the astronomical prices these objects continue to command in the international market and the second reason being that the government has done precious little to actually acquire such objects either through competitive bidding or through diplomatic maneuvers.
A look at how the secondary market for Indian art and antiquities has expanded over the last decade will make the picture clearer.
As late as 2010, the auction world's fascination with Tipu Sultan continued. Finials from his octagonal throne, a piece of which was bought by Mallya in 2009 made a re-appearance in 2010 at Bonham's. Another of Tipu's swords reappeared seven years later after Mallya acquired the first at Sotheby's and fetched £505,250 in London on April 16. It was, almost ironically estimated at £50,000-70,000 and actually sold for ten times its initial higher estimate. According to a Sotheby's press release, “Another highlight of the auction was rare Indian bronze cannon cast at the Mysore king's royal foundry. This artifact from around 1790 was bought by an anonymous buyer at £313,250.
Among other items in the lot were a tent canopy that was sold for £121,250 and a rare matchlock carbine that came under the hammer for £91,250.
The auction fetched £15.4 million, compared to the £1.2 million pounds earned at the first part of the Tipu Sultan auction of 2005.”
Gandhi's letters and telegrams to Maulana Abdul Bari, a leading star of the Khilafat movement were estimated between GBP 2,000 and 2,500. They eventually sold for 2125 GBP. Gandhi's letter to Hamid Ullah Afsar, the Urdu poet, in Urdu was estimated between GBP 1,500 and 2000, and eventually sold at GBP 1,875. On the other hand Jawaharlal Nehru's signed letters and notes to Mridula Sarabhai toppled their estimates between GBP 4,000 and 5,000 and went for a hammer price of GBP 8750.
Avijit Ghosh, writing for The Times of India in an article on April 20, 2008, notes, “When a personal khanjar (dagger) of 17th century Mughal emperor Shah Jahan went up for sale in London earlier this month, it was expected to fetch anything between Rs 2.3 and Rs 3.9 crore. The prediction was way off the mark. The auction witnessed frenzied bidding, with some reports saying that representatives of Vijay Mallya, the Bangalore-based liquor baron-cum-Rajya Sabha MP, had also bid for the stylish period piece. In fact, the Mallya bid went as high as Rs 10.3 crore. But in the end, an anonymous bidder on telephone swung the sale for a whopping Rs1.7 million or Rs 13.3 crore.
The astronomical price fetched by the elegant dagger appeared to be in tune with the sentiments of the season. Indian antiquities are red hot in the western market. Stonework, even century-old Indian photographs have been lapped up for record prices. Those in the business affirm the trend. Says Dr Amin Jaffer, international director of Asian art, Christie's, the London-based fine art auctioneers, 'In recent years, steady economic growth in India and among Indian communities globally has meant that Indian art collectors are more readily able to acquire works of art, whether antiquities or contemporary pieces.”
But that is the brighter side. It is in this article that Ghosh notes the darker side too and raises a pertinent question. “The rising profile of Indian antiquities, however, has also raised an important question: Does India possesses the right laws, infrastructure and environment to ensure that the practice flourishes and garners a larger social base?”
He gives examples and quotes aplenty.
Quoting the Osian's chairman Neville Tuli, he writes, “Neville Tuli, chairman, Osian's, the art auction house, lists some problems faced by the Indian collector: ambiguous legislation and its abuse, black economy, a lack of awareness, knowledge and respect for one's cultural heritage, political interference without passion, care or knowledge and a non-existent atmosphere to pursue the hobby.
The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 is expansive about cultural objects going out of the country but largely silent on items coming in. The ambiguity creates opportunity for corrupt officials. A Delhi-based collector of antiquated books recounts how he was harassed by a customs official when he came back with a rare Indian book he had bought in London.
Tuli feels that the ASI should refocus, with new ideas and greater exposure to changing world practices. "It needs to appreciate how archaic the legislation and documentation norms are so that a vibrant domestic antiquities market can emerge and the Indian public can participate anew at all levels," he says.
Changes could happen in the future. K P Poonacha, Director (antiquity and museum), ASI says, "We are looking to amend the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972." He adds: "The subject of import of cultural objects also needs to be examined."
Roughly 4.8 lakh artifacts are registered in India. Poonacha points out that the ASI is only interested in educating private collectors, not obtaining cultural objects from them.
One pivotal change required is dialogue and mutual respect between the public and private sector, he adds. “Without this genuine collaboration, the problem cannot be tackled, let alone India emerging as a true knowledge and cultural centre, "he says.”
That is where Ghosh ends his article. However we still have one question. Whatever happened to Poonacha's promise of amending the Antiquities and Art Treasures act 1972? The only amendment that has as yet been recorded was done in 1973, and thenceforth nothing has been done except sporadic attempts at addressing a situation when media pressure was too high as at the time of the sale of the Gandhi memorabilia. Unfortunately, even that was rendered fruitless.