Antiquities Theft and Illicit Antiquities Trade in India

in Article
Published on: 22 October 2018

Samayita Banerjee, (co-author) Ishani Ghorai

Samayita Banerjee is an MPhil Research Scholar in History at Delhi University. She specialises in pre colonial history, archaeology, heritage and conservation keeping Southern Bengal as the area of focus. She completed her BA Honours in History from Presidency College Calcutta and her Masters in Ancient Indian History from Delhi University.
Ishani Ghorai is an MPhil Research Scholar at the Department of History Delhi University. Her area of expertise is history and sites of revolution in colonial Bengal. She has completed her BA Honours in History from Presidency College, Calcutta University and Masters in History from Hyderabad Central University. She has assisted Samayita Banerjee during the course of this fieldwork.


In 1974, Satyajit Ray, known mostly as a distinguished filmmaker, wrote a mystery novel as a part of his detective novel/short story series on the adventures of private detective Pradosh Chandra Mitter, lovingly and popularly known as Feluda. This novel Kailash-e Kelenkari was about the hunt for an illegally stolen Yakshi head from the Kailash temple at Ellora, India. The story revolved around the search for the stolen head and the subsequent exposure of an intricate network in illegal antiquities trade. The story is popular for the mystery and the thrill that a good detective novel contains, but in composing it Ray highlighted one of the major problems that concerns the fate of historical sites of this country.


In India between 1977 and 1979, nearly 3,000 thefts of antiquities were reported. In that same decade, more than 50,000 art objects were smuggled out of India as estimated by the UNESCO. The growing demand in the antiquities market for Indian art objects has led to major destruction and vandalism of archaeological sites in the country. However, looking at this issue of ‘theft’ from simply a statistical perspective remains a problem in the case of post-Independence India.


The idea of 'theft' in colonial and independent India


It was the British in the 19th century who defined what was ‘valuable’ in India. As Bernard Cohn writes, ‘It was the patrons who created a system of classification which determined what was valuable, that which would be preserved as monuments of the past, that which was collected and placed in museums, that which could be bought and sold, that which would be taken from India as mementoes and souvenirs of their own relationship to India and Indians (Cohn 1996).’ The emergence of a market for objects from India could be traced back to that time.


The earliest example of an Indian sculpture acquired by a Western museum was an ‘east Indian idol of black brasse’ collected by William Feilding, a courtier to Charles I, who removed this idol from inside an Indian temple to present to his master. The British in the course of their stay in India had taken several objects out of the country as ‘prizes’ and ‘trophies of war’. These most obviously were initially objects of loot and plunder and later, with the consolidation of their rule, simply became things they ‘owned’.


This mentality of the British could be linked to the mentalities of early medieval kings of South Asia. As Richard Davis writes, ‘Looting, in medieval South Asia, was an important element in the rhetoric of Kingship (Davis 1993).’[1] The expropriation of objects from another defined as enemy during military conflicts, which is today defined by the Anglo-Indian term ‘looting’, is an activity that is constructed differently in different places in different times. Today in can be understood as theft motivated by economic gains and at times a side effect of war. But in the cases of the early medieval kings of South Asia and also the British, it was a ‘matter of victory, not of theft’, as Richard Davis put it. This was an intensely political act performed to seek legitimacy as conquerors or, more appropriately, victors.


India was very much a ‘living museum’ for the early colonialists. The British believed they had come to India in a period of degeneration and decay and it fell upon them to restitute and conserve its heritage and write its history. After the defeat of Tipu Sultan, the company became active in trying to document India’s past. Collections of objects and their shipping to museums in England became a part of that ongoing process of documentation. In mid-19th century, several stone and metal sculptures and Amaravati marbles found their way to the company’s museum as part of the Colonel Mackenzie collection and that of Charles ‘Hindoo’ Stuart. But even then major collections were also the result of bribery, coercion, and theft.


The scenario, with the arrival of the 20th century, was quite different. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had already been established half a century back and the work it had been doing had been significant. The 20th century started off as the Curzon and Marshall era. Despite several limitations, the monumental policies under Lord Curzon and the scale of archaeological works carried out by the young director general of ASI, John Marshall, were indisputable. It is important to mention Curzon in this paper since he was the first one who opposed taking away of Indian artefacts to the British museums and vouched for those objects to be restored and returned to their original place. This was seen as a violation of the rights of the British museums and the viceroy’s proposal was strongly opposed. Of course, antiquities continued to be taken away from the country but with Curzon we can see an idea and need for antiquities’ protection emerging within the country.


Archaeology and law in India


Archaeology law in India was set in colonial times on British precepts of selective protection and equitable division of finds. The 1878 Treasure Trove Act, still in use, requires the finder to report finding any object/objects to proper government agents. The government can acquire it by paying the market value of that object to the owner plus 20 per cent. For pre-Independent India, it was the 1904 Ancient Monuments Preservation Act that provided for the protection of monuments and sites of archaeological and historical importance. In post-Independence India it was the 1947 Ancient Monuments Preservation Act, which was superseded by the 1958 Act, that was intended to provide the same degree of protection. This Act was to also complement the pre-Independence 1947 Antiquities Export Control Act to regulate the antiquities trade and which allowed the licensed export of antiquities.


Although there had been some demand for Indian objects and sculptures in the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not yet highly regarded. With the increase of the aesthetic appreciation for Indian art by the middle of the 20th century, the market for it became quite large. The decades of 1950s and 1960s saw the illegal export of a large number of Indian objects finding their way to art galleries and museums across the world, especially the United States. The laws that had been in function all this while became insufficient to deal with it and the seriousness of the situation resulted in the introduction of much stricter laws. The 1972 Antiquities and Art Treasure Act, implemented in 1976, strictly banned the export of any sort of archaeological object and also imposed stricter vigilance on individual ownerships of such objects. In short, all archaeological objects and sites were taken under state possession and authority. Under this rule as well attempts started to be made to get back stolen antiquities (Biswas 1991)[2].


Some famous cases


One of the most famous cases was that of the Pathur Nataraja. This bronze statue of Nataraja, belonging to the Chola period, found itself at the centre of a High Court case between 1984 and 1988. It was supposedly unearthed in 1976 by a landless labourer Ramamoorthi, who sold it for money instead of informing the collector of the region.  The statue had passed through a series of buyers until it was bought by the Bumper Development Oil Company of Canada and was subsequently sent to London for repairs, where it was identified as the stolen idol. The Nataraja was, however, won back by the Indian government in 1988.[3]


Another example can be given of the Sivapuram Nataraja, which was stolen from a hoard of bronze idols in 1957. It fell in the hands of the American collector Norton Simon in 1973, who confessed that it was stolen. In his own words, as told to a Times of London reporter, ‘Hell yes, it was smuggled, I spent between $15 million and $16 million over the last year on Asian Art, and most of it was smuggled.’ He argued, in his defence, however, that it was not stolen (Davis 1997).[4] The idols was returned to India in 1986 after a ten-year lease to Simon.


These are, of course, a few of several major cases that can be mentioned in this article. Lord Curzon in his famous lecture delivered at the Asiatic Society on December 20, 1900 gave a list of the acts of vandalism that had been carried out in the Bentinck era. These included the destruction of the Taj marbles, leasing of the gardens at Sikandra to executive engineers for the purpose of ‘speculative cultivation’, and, of course, during the time of the Mutiny countless monuments were destroyed and looted. And although these acts of vandalism may not be as extreme as they were in the 19th century, they continue to persist.


Smuggling of antiquities was first detected in 1936 when a French national from Pondicherry was caught sending objects to France with the help of two local men. From Khajuraho alone over 100 erotic sculptures had been stolen from the period between 1965 and1970. Among two very famous cases, one was the burglary at the Jaipur Palace Museum from where almost 1,750 miniature paintings were removed, and the other is the 1968 theft at the National Museum (New Delhi) where 125 pieces of antique jewellery and 32 rare gold coins went missing (Pal 1992).[5] Although post-Independence India seems notorious when it comes to illegal theft and trafficking in antiquities, pre-Independence India too witnessed much of the same. Apart from the vandalism that took place in the 19th century that has been mentioned above, there are instances from the following century as well. Perhaps the biggest example is the presence of several Indus Valley objects in the London museum. But there will remain a difference in the magnitude of thefts since the terms ‘foreign’ and ‘theft’ had very different meanings in pre- and post-Independence India.


On Chandraketugarh and its predicament


An early historic site from West Bengal, Chandraketugarh remains at the forefront of the illegal antiquities trade. This site that has been known since before the excavation of Mohenjo Daro and the subsequent discovery of the Indus Valley Civilization, presently lies in a state of negligence and incomplete academic research. Chandraketugarh is known to make headlines because of the large number of artefacts stolen and exported all over the world with the help of locals, middlemen, and dealers in antiquities. This site is very popular among auction houses and even more popular among museums and private collectors. Numerous fakes and genuine artefacts can be located and seen in the collections of indigenous private collectors and also those abroad. The problem does not end there. The site itself is marred in controversy and lies derelict from a lack of proper conservational work and institutional negligence.


The museums that display objects from Chandraketugarh are all over the world. The most popular ones are the Musee Guimet in Paris, Linden Museum and the Museum of Indian Art, both in Germany, Ashmolean Museum in the United Kingdom and probably also the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum as well[6]. In India it can be found in the private collections of several people, one of who is Dilip Maite and in state collections such as the State Archaeological Museum of West Bengal and the National Museum of India in Delhi. The last one, however, had one figurine from Chandraketugarh on display in the Early Historic gallery.


Reasons for rampant illicit trade


Most scholars would argue that the rampant trade in illicit antiquities begun after Independence. There are many motivations behind collecting objects of art and antiquities. The foremost is acquisition of culture, while others include financial motives. Furthermore, antiquities like art, are ripe objects for black-market investments. The criterion that an object must be at least a 100 years old to make it valuable enough naturally makes archaeological and historical sites the most tempting targets. It goes without saying that this network is incomplete without the involvement of local and regional intermediaries.   


These are problems that are not separated from the bigger problems related to protection and conservation work in our country. Since Independence, hundreds of sites and monuments, including the ones that are state-protected, have been vandalized. The ASI had not been able to cope up with the situation, and the conditions of some state departments are not too encouraging either. The quality of conservation works taken up by the ASI has been immensely inadequate except in a few instances. One major example of this catastrophically poor conservation work is the attempts to restore the Ajanta cave paintings that have lost their vibrancy and appear to covered by a layer of a dark film on it. The helplessness of the scenario is quite aptly summed up by Nayanjot Lahiri, 'If Indians take pride in their past they do so in the knowledge that what little survives is not because, but in spite of those who are supposed to be its official guardians (Lahiri 2007).’[7]


A few remedies


The problems of conservation and theft have worsened but they are not entirely hopeless. There are several ways that might curb these problems to some extent. In India it is often the common people who end up giving due protection to an ancient object because of their religious faith, unlike the urban elite who do not seem to be too concerned with protecting the country’s heritage. However, one cannot only depend on a few sensible exceptions or the religiosity of the Indian villages for protection of its ancient heritage. Two measures that can be easily provided are: 1) putting archaeology and heritage conservation in the scheme of Indian historical education and 2) reframe the laws associated with the protection of monuments and antiquities and make them more accessible to the common public.


Another important measure is involving the panchayat and district board level leadership to tighten the vigilance and help to control local agents preying around freely. Most importantly, heritage conservation needs to be taken beyond the scope of work of the ASI and a more liberal excavation policy needs to be introduced for non-governmental organizations. Encouragement of individual antiquarianism is much needed in the present situation since the state and the central governments are forced to take on more than they can handle due to the laws but seem unable to deal with even half of that responsibility. As for the state departments and museums, auditing and registering their collections and finds is the first thing that needs to be taken care of right now.


The situation of the growing market for Indian and other Asian art objects is caused due to the dichotomous relationship between the rich 'demand' countries and the poorer 'source' countries. The market cannot be reduced because the demand will not reduce. But the supply from the so-called poor countries can be limited with simple initiatives that need to be taken immediately. Otherwise soon there may be a situation where India’s rich ancient heritage will cease to be accessible to India’s own.



[1] Davis, Richard H. 1993. ‘Indian Art Objects as Loot.’ Journal of Asian Studies 52.

[2] Biswas, Sachindra Shekhar. 1991. Protecting the Cultural Heritage (National Legislations and International Conventions). NewDelhi: Aryan Books International.

[3]  This information has been taken from the newspaper report of March 15. 1988, ‘India Today’.

[4]  Davis, Richard H. 1997. Lives of Indian Images. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[5] Pal, H. Bhisham. 1992. The Plunder of Art. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

[7] Lahiri, Nayanjot. 2007. ‘Monumental Follies.’ India International Centre Quarterly 33.


Additional Readings


Brodie, Neil. ‘Historical and Social Perspectives on the Regulation of International Trade: The Examples of Greece and India.’ Archaeological Objects 38 (2005).


Greenfield, Jeanette. The Return of Cultural Treasures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.


Lahiri, Nayanjot. ‘Destruction or Conservation? Some Aspects of Monument Policy in British India.’ In Destruction and Conservation of Cultural Property, edited by Robert Layton, et al. London: Routledge, 2001.


______. ‘Monumental Follies.’ India International Centre Quarterly 33 (2007).


______. Monuments Matter—India’s Archaeological Heritage since Independence. Mumbai: The Mark Foundation, 68:4, 2017.


Pachauri, S.K. ‘Plunder of Cultural and Art Treasures: The Indian Experience.’ In Illicit Antiquities: The Theft of Culture and Extinction of Archaeology, edited by Neil Brodie and Kathryn Walker Tubb. London: Routledge, 2001.