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ASI action plan to prevent smuggling of Indian antiques to West

George Iype in New Delhi

In a move to stop the smuggling of valuable Indian sculptures, coins, manuscripts, statues and other artefacts to Western markets, the Archaeological Survey of India has recommended sweeping changes in the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act.

The ASI's urgency to protect the country's heritage stems from a British documentary which alleged that some of the antiquities the reputed auction house, Sotheby's, put up for auction last year were illegally smuggled out of India.

The documentary, which tracked down the source of a medieval Yogini statue to a Hindu temple in a remote village in Uttar Pradesh, alleged that other stolen Indian art objects are mentioned in the Sotheby's catalogue.

ASI Director General Ajai Shankar said the agency will submit to the department of culture a set of recommendations "to stop prized paintings, statues, sculptures and ornaments vanishing from Indian temples, churches and museums."

"We will also ask Western countries to regularly send to the respective Indian high commissions catalogues of Indian artefacts put up for auctions by auction houses like Sotheby's," Shankar told Rediff On The NeT.

According to him, the illegal trade in Indian artefacts has flourished over the years. Many valuable antiquities from the country are available for sale in European art markets due to the lacunae in the AATA.

"Prized Indian artefacts vanish from the country because we are not a law enforcement agency," the ASI director general said, adding that "only stringent laws can prevent antiquities being stolen from India."

The AATA, enacted in 1972, says that no object of art over a hundred years old can leave Indian shores. But the Act does not empower the police and customs personnel to enforce this law. The result: historic art objects are shipped out of the country to rich international collections without the ASI's knowledge.

The act also stipulates that all valuable paintings, sculptures and statues should be registered with the ASI and the registered artefacts should not be taken out of the country.

But ASI sources point out that quite often even these registered antiquities are taken out of the country for exhibitions that various Indian high commissions conduct every year in different countries. "Some of these art items never come back after the exhibitions," said a senior ASI official, alleging that some consular officials abroad are part of this illegal trade.

The ASI plans to suggest to the government that no art object registered with it should be allowed to be taken out of the country for exhibitions. The agency also wants the government to empower customs officers at airports and ports with the authority to check all art items and paintings that any traveller carries on his/her person.

But some ASI officials believe these measures will not help prevent artefacts being smuggled out of the country. For the simple reason that more than 70 per cent of India's prized antiquities are unregistered with the agency.

"India has the largest collection of valuable art objects in the world, but only a few thousand of them are registered with the ASI," a top ASI official told Rediff On The NeT.

Records with the ASI's investigative bureau say a number of sculptures, ornaments, paintings and statues from churches in Goa and various temples from Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have disappeared in the last decade.

"The value of many of these art pieces run into million of dollars," an official said, adding that the ASI is planning to ask all churches, temples, mosques and musuems across the country to submit photographs of their precious artefacts with the ASI.

Sotheby's denies allegations

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