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Open up our treasure chests

To save our rich heritage, India’s antiquities must be freed of antiquated laws, writes Suresh Neotia.

india Updated: May 13, 2011 12:19 IST
Suresh Neotia

It is heartening to see that the Ministry of Culture, presided over by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and administered by Secretary Jawahar Sircar, is actively considering amending the 1972 Act on Antiquities. Few laws have borne such bitter fruit as the Indian Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972, ushering in a Dark Age for the heritage it sought to protect. What prompted the then Government to enact this legislation was to prevent smuggling and help develop public interest in our heritage. The time has come honestly to appraise its effects.

The Act has destroyed legitimate domestic trade in antiquities, thereby making smuggling an attractive option. Its onerous provisions for registration (requires registering of objects more than 100 years old, 75 years in the case of textiles, with details of the purchaser, seller, price, origin of the piece along with photo documentation) and licensing have made antiquities a no-go area, to the extent that even scholarship and research into our heritage has gone into sharp decline. The chickens are now coming home to roost. The Government cannot find scholars of repute to head its museums and their specialised departments. More than 50 per cent of all our public museums (including the National Museum), home to the bulk of the nation’s artistic patrimony, are headless.

Art and art scholarship depend on patronage and a lively market place. It requires a network of collectors, dealers and scholars to authenticate individual pieces, guide collectors and educate the public. The Act destroyed this network, the complexities of registration and possibility of prosecution deterring collectors. No collection of any significance has been formed since 1972, in sharp contrast to the numerous collections between 1947 and 1972. The licensing of dealers and the requirement of a detailed inventory for each object drove the trade underground. I am told there are only two dealers who ever took a licence.

The study of antiquities also withered. The story of the two auction houses which attempted to revive domestic trade in Indian antiques is well-known. Sotheby’s in 1992 and Bowring’s in 2004 were auctioning registered pieces. The CBI and Archaeological Survey of India hounded them, forcing them to close shop. Bowring’s case is still under adjudication after it won in the High Court but the ASI chose to file an appeal in the Supreme Court.

The Antiquities Act was flawed in its scope and ambition. No distinction is made between humble art objects and works of art of high value. In the event, only a small proportion of the total was actually registered. The registration papers are scattered all over the country, often misplaced, requiring owners to re-register their collections.

The Indian contemporary art scene is fuelled by the new rich. Galleries, curators and auctions have mushroomed while prices have been benchmarked. The trading value of contemporary art runs into thousands of crores. There is, however, no means of evaluating the price of an Indian antique.

China, which destroyed its own priceless heritage during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, has realised the importance of its inheritance. We, who are envious of its economic track record, should be equally so of what it is doing to protect its heritage. Its museums are now world-class. Though it has a ban on antique exports, China has opened up its domestic market. Chinese antiques are being sold to China’s new rich at prices higher than in Western salerooms. Foreigners owning valuable Chinese artworks are increasingly selling these through Chinese auction houses. India’s new rich, like their Chinese counterparts, have the appetite and resources to buy heritage art. My estimate is that benchmark valuations will grow exponentially once the competitive urge to acquire takes hold of rich Indians.

The Indian Antiquities and Art Treasures Act was passed during the heyday of the licence raj, an era brought to its end by none other than Dr. Manmohan Singh. It would be in the fitness of things if he could now free antiquities from the clutches of the bureaucracy with similar beneficial effects. Antiquities must once again become objects to cherish, not shun.

Suresh Neotia is Chairman, Ambuja Cement Foundation and art collector. The views expressed by the author are personal