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Preserving Cultural Heritage

Addressing Gaps in the Antiquities Act

Deepthi Sasidharan ( is an independent curator who works with museum and archives planning projects, especially developing and implementing collection management systems.

The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972 has failed to curb the illicit trafficking of Indian antiquities. Will the draft Antiquities and Art Treasures Regulation, Export and Import Control Bill, 2017, with its blinkered focus on the buying and selling of antiques, end up facilitating the free trade of our valuable material heritage instead of protecting it?

The central government has proposed the amendment and revision of the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972. Union Minister for Culture Mahesh Sharma strongly feels that these amendments and revisions will prevent the rampant and unlawful export of Indian antiquities. Reading between the lines, then, the implication is that the existing legislation has failed on several fronts.

At the forefront of the debate is the rampant illicit trafficking of Indian antiquities. It is difficult to gauge the extent of the problem because of the dearth of concrete data on the illicit art trade. Nobody has a complete grip on the magnitude and extent of the illegal trade in stolen art. The issue was in the spotlight after the arrest of New York-based Subhash Kapoor in 2012 in Tamil Nadu. Kapoor was an established antiquities dealer in New York whose clients included leading and established museums and distinguished collectors in the United States and around the world. His arrest and subsequent investigations exposed a murky and intricate network of criminals that transcends borders, actively aided by local agencies, including the police.

As part of his modus operandi, Kapoor formed partnerships with local temple thieves in Tamil Nadu who would identify valuable antiquities in temples and steal them. Sometimes, the originals would be replaced with good replicas, and most of the idols would find their way to his offices even as a meticulously built provenance obliterated any chance of tracing it back to the original source. Today, Kapoor languishes in a Chennai jail. Estimates put the worth of his stolen loot at a staggering $100 million (Matthews 2013), and one wonders, if a single man could amass so much in this illicit trade, what of the operators not yet discovered?

By 2014, with Kapoor in jail, the art he had sold and the provenance he had fabricated were slowly exposed. A clearly embarrassed Australian government returned1 a dancing Nataraja Shiva idol to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Government of India. It was proved that this 900-year-old bronze antique had been stolen from a temple in Sripuranthan, Tamil Nadu in 2006 and constituted one of the deals Kapoor made with the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra for $5 million.

Also in 2014, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced that sales of antiquities from West Asia were now funding the terrorist activities of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).2 The watchdog blog Conflict Antiquities (Hardy 2017) has been highlighting the dismal and systematic loot of antiques, from Iraq in 2014 to the most recent plunder of historic valuables from Syria in 2017. It also presents the reasons why desperate citizens across nations resort to looting. From the temples of Tamil Nadu to the province of Idlib in Syria, the temptation to steal unguarded art and sell it for significant amounts of money is great, especially in districts ravaged by poverty or war. It is ironic that the value of an antique increases manifold when obtained under such circumstances. By the time an institution like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York or the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, buys it, a single artefact could cost $2 million or more.

Antiquities and Art Treasures

Defining the age of antiques solely on the basis of certified documents and the “more than 100 years” classification is a major drawback.

Every 10 years, a few thousand objects become potential “antiquities” based on the above definition and we are facing a peculiar situation regarding our valuable heritage-related objects. The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 defines an antiquity as (i) any coin, sculpture, painting, epigraph or other work of art or craftsmanship; (ii) any article, object or thing detached from a building or cave; (iii) any article, object or thing illustrative of science, art, crafts, literature, religion, customs, morals or politics in bygone ages; (iv) any article, object or thing of historical interest; (v) any article, object or thing declared by the central government, by notification in the official gazette, to be an antiquity for the purposes of this act, which has been in existence for not less than 100 years; and (vi) any manuscript, record or other document which is of scientific, historical, literary or aesthetic value and which has been in existence for not less than 75 years.3

This legal definition of an antiquity is a combination of several factors. Any object older than 100 years and an art treasure is considered important. Therefore, these items of national interest cannot leave the country. Art treasures in museums are easy to classify and track, but what of the priceless art treasures in our places of worship that are part of our living heritage?

Legally, an object becomes an antiquity simply because it is over 100 years old and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) registers it. This agency can also certify these antiquities. However, not all objects over 100 years old have to be registered under the act. At present the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 does not permit any authority other than the central government, or an agency authorised by it, to export an antiquity or art treasure or carry out the registration process.

The complications of guarding our heritage thus become apparent. The ASI cannot possibly safeguard all antiquities strewn across museums, monuments and other historical sites. This factor attests to the ineffectiveness of the 1972 act. The black market trade in antiquities by a well-connected network of dealers across the country and those who recognise their value and worth in international markets is thriving.

Proposed Legislation

The proposed Antiquities and Art Treasures Regulation, Export and Import Control Bill, 2017—for the most part—echoes the 1972 act’s definition of an antiquity, offering no greater clarity. For example, the earlier act did not list “photographs” or “textiles,” and the 2017 avatar has also left out these valuable art forms.

However, the point that has sparked the most debate in the 2017 bill is the unregulated buying and selling of antiquities. This move is indeed alarming as it purports free trade of our valuable material heritage. There also seems to be a specific focus on how to promote the “business of selling or offering to sell antiques”4 in Sections 2 and 3 (and its subsections). The Ministry of Culture may want to reconsider entrusting any citizen of India with the barter and sale of antiquities, especially when the illicit art trade provides significant funding for terror groups! Considering the indifference of both urban and rural Indians to the preservation of antiquities, we could just be opening the floodgates for the systematic plunder of our heritage.

Sections 3(2) and 11(2) of the 2017 bill also acknowledge the use of technology. The ministry proposes to take on the responsibility of maintaining a database of antiquities, and all buyers and sellers will be required to upload details of the said antique on a “prescribed” web portal. This is, frankly, an impractical if not impossible exercise, as thousands of antiquities such as coins, prints and books are sold in India every day by merchants who are semi-literate or with very limited access to the internet.

Need for a National Registry

Many countries have a national registry to record their material culture and maintain a systematic record of their antiquities. The government usually develops remote searchable and secure databases, accessible through easy to use software. In a large country like India, it is imperative to have separate listings for museum antiquities, monuments and other relics. The Sripuranthan Nataraja could be identified only because the French Institute of Pondicherry (IFP) had photographic records that corroborated the criminal evidence and helped in the identification of the missing idol.

A Government of India initiative under the Ministry of Culture entitled Museums of India5 has put together a national portal and digital repository for Indian museums, accessed through Jatan, a collection management software. However, it covers only 10 museums, and only some parts of their collections have been digitised and made accessible on the portal. The information is inconsistent because of the absence of digitisation and documentation standards. It is difficult to clearly identify and classify the artefacts because the images are poorly lit, shot at different locations, and offer no accurate scale information. Another initiative, the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities, has the “mandate of preparing a database of diverse Indian antiquities as defined in [the] Antiquities and Art Treasures Act 1972.”6 The department has documented over 2,00,000 antiquities and listed over 11,000 records for heritage buildings.

When you consider the magnitude of India and its heritage, the problem becomes evident. To begin with, it is unreasonable to expect a single agency like the ASI to monitor, update and track all antiquities and heritage sites continuously. Even in a smaller country like Portugal, for example, an exercise like this is almost fully funded by the government, with 29 national museums brought under the umbrella of a single entity called the IMC,7 and each museum, irrespective of its geographical location, able to access the common database that has listings of all the collections. It is something like the Aadhaar, a unique identity programme for antiquities. Instead of biometrics, essential data like the dimensions and weight of an object are recorded.

Of course, the process of recording these details runs the danger of damaging an object, but this would be the exception rather than the rule.

The Way Forward

The government’s 2017 draft bill has clearly not been thought through carefully, with its blinkered focus on the trading of antiquities and insistence on digitisation. The protection of the nation’s treasures should be the sole responsibility of the state and its agencies. If the time has come to incorporate new agencies for safeguarding our cultural heritage, the government needs to attend to it. Trade in private antiquities must be monitored, and, if need be, the government can co-opt a younger generation of experts with international experience in the cultural space. This new phenomenon, unheard of a few decades ago, may bring in highly qualified professionals who can work towards saving our heritage, currently in a state of neglect.


1 Former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott returned the idol to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 5 September 2014 in New Delhi.

2 On 3 December 2014, UNESCO hosted an international conference titled “Heritage and Cultural Diversity at Risk in Iraq and Syria” at its Paris headquarters, where then UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova made this statement in French.

3 The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, _data/8.pdf.

4 See Section 3(2) of the draft bill,

5 The National Portal and Digital Repository for Indian Museums is developed and hosted by the Human-Centered Design and Computing Group, Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (C-DAC), Pune, in collaboration with the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.

6 National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities, Government of India,

7 Instituto dos Museus e da Conservação (IMC) is currently engaged in making various collections more accessible through the project Matriz Net that enables specialists as well as the general audience to study numerous single items in comparison with similar pieces and/or pieces by the same artist. See


Hardy, Samuel Andrew (2017): “There Are Customers for Everything from Syria and Iraq,” blog post, Conflict Antiquities, 19 October,

Matthews, Adam (2013): “The Man Who Sold the World,” GQ, 5 December,


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