An important highlight of PM Narendra Modi‘s recent US visit was the return of more than 150 art pieces and antiques by US authorities that had been stolen from India. This follows the restitution by Australia in July of a bunch of artefacts that were illegally removed from India. Museum and private collections across the western countries are studded with pieces that have their provenance in former colonies. While the need for the restoration of artworks and antiques to their countries of origin is felt more strongly than ever before, there are still thousands of such pieces that remain in the possession of western collectors with no clear roadmap for their return.
Are There Any Binding Laws For Return Of Illegally Acquired Antiques?
Unesco notes that the “theft, looting and illicit trafficking of cultural property is a crime" as it “deprives people of their history and culture [and]… weakens social cohesion in the long term". To “stem this scourge", the UN body had come up with the 1970 Convention on the ‘Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property’, which seeks to nudge countries into cracking down on “illicit trafficking of cultural property".
However, the focus of this 1970 Convention is on the prevention of illicit traffic of cultural property, which is not of much help when it comes to the question of the restoration to origin countries of long-lost artefacts that were removed during periods of colonial occupation. India has suffered from both the removal of artefacts by colonial powers and the theft and illegal trafficking of antiques.
On the “return or restitution of cultural property", Unesco says it “will be carried out in the spirit of the 1970 Convention", which lays down that bilateral negotiations should be the means to achieve such restoration.
Recognising the absence of international mechanisms for the return of “lost cultural property, whether as a result of foreign or colonial occupation or following illicit traffic before the entry into force… of the 1970 Convention", Unesco had in 1978 created the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP) as a permanent intergovernmental body, independent of the 1970 Convention.
The ICPRCP’s key mandate is to facilitate bilateral parleys for the return of cultural property, which means that it is up to the two countries involved to arrive at an arrangement towards that end. And that is where things get difficult.
What Are The Hurdles Towards Restitution?
While western countries have spoken about agreeing in principle with the right of origin countries over antiques they illegally hold in their possession, restitution of such items is a different matter altogether. Reports say that when the then British PM David Cameron was asked about whether his country would return the Koh-i-noor diamond that is a part of the British Crown jewels, he is reported to have said that he did not support such ‘returnism’ as that would empty out British museums.
A report in the Economist notes that the likes of France and Britain have laws that prevent the alienation of artefacts that are part of public collections “making it impossible to remove even the smallest piece, whether to sell it or, more altruistically, to return it".
However, the likes of France, Italy, the Netherlands and Germany have reached out to their former colonies and countries whose cultural heritage they are in possession of to return some of these antiquities.
How Does India Track Antiques And Pursue Their Return?
In a reply to a question in Parliament in March this year, the Union culture ministry had said that 35 antiquities have been retrieved from the US, Australia and UK in the last five years. The ministry said that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is tasked with pursuing the return of antiquities and is “in touch with various countries like US, Switzerland, Australia, Singapore, Canada, etc." for the purpose though “no time line has been fixed for the same".
Writing for CNBC-TV18 former chairman of the Central Board of Indirect Taxes & Customs, Najib Shah, notes that a 2013 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) had found that ASI did not have “a comprehensive policy guideline for the management of antiquities owned by it; and significantly, as the custodian of antiquities, did not even maintain a centralised database of the total number of antiquities in its possession".
He says that key to tracing artefacts belonging to India that are held by foreign countries and ensuring their return is the creation of a “robust database of existing and stolen antiques and artefacts" while officials need to keep following up on the issue of restitution.