Research and restitution: the National Gallery of Australia’s repatriation of a sculpture from the Buddhist site of Chandavaram
In 2016, the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) returned a 3rd-century stone panel to India. Titled Worshippers of the Buddha, the panel was bought in 2005 for US$595,000 from New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor. Arrested in 2011 and extradited to India, Kapoor has been linked to a pattern of illegal trade. Many items from his inventory match objects missing from Indian sites, resulting in numerous acts of restitution by international museums and collectors. At the time of acquisition, the NGA believed that the rudimentary documentation supplied by the vendor indicated a secure ownership history. The return was made after art historian Robert Arlt provided documentary evidence that Worshippers of the Buddha was excavated from the stūpa near the Buddhist site of Chandavaram in the 1970s, stolen from the site museum in 2001 and, by implication, illegally exported from India.
In this paper, Arlt describes how his research on the decorative panels of the stūpa near Chandavaram led him to learn of a series of violent robberies from the Chandavaram museum, and identify one of the stolen objects to the NGA collection. NGA provenance researcher Lucie Folan then discusses the sculpture’s fraudulent provenance as a tool of reassurance and misinformation, the failure of due diligence measures, and the political and practical implications of the Kapoor case. Without a reported theft, and with few published images of the excavation, Arlt demonstrates that researchers must look to obscure archaeological and art-historical records to accurately identify the origin of objects in museum collections and recognise looted or suspect items on the art market. The case study underscores the importance of information-sharing and collaboration with experts in and outside of source countries as museums grapple with the legacy of art crime.
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