Anika Havaldar of Saffronart responds to a recent article by Naman Ahuja on the ‘smuggling’ of India’s heritage
From rag-pickers and farmers, village-level entrepreneurs and small town middlemen to sophisticated art-dealers and connoisseurs, the network of people involved with ‘smuggling’ Indian antiquities out of the country is vast and largely unaccounted for. Currently, the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, established in 1972, states that antiquities may only be traded by licensed vendors and owned by those registered with the Architectural Survey of India (ASI). Under this act, any trading of Indian artefacts abroad is illegal. Hence, non-resident Indians wishing to own pieces of their heritage would have to ‘smuggle’ the works abroad.
In a recently published article, Naman P. Ahuja, associate professor of Ancient Indian Art at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, points out that the increased instances of this ‘smuggling’ has got policy-makers asking all the wrong questions. Efforts are currently focused on policing these ‘smugglers’ rather than identifying why so many Indian treasures continue to leave the country. Why are there no domestic takers for them? Ahuja argues that there is an urgent need to encourage the collection, and hence, retention of antiquities in India.
Incentivizing art fairs, auctions, and dealings of antiquities will encourage domestic markets, curtailing illegal markets abroad. Increased transparency in the market for contemporary art has shown an unprecedented rise in the number of buyers, sellers, and artists. A strongly regulated, transparent market is required for antiquities as well. Additionally, Ahuja advocates the need for a strong base of knowledge and an improved network of art historians, conservators, and archaeologists to maintain our public collections and museums – instilling the importance of heritage property across the nation. The cumbersome registration process is just one of the strong disincentives to building collections of antiquities in India.
While the legal system strives to keep Indian treasures within India’s borders, it seems to be stifling domestic markets. Given the large amounts of artefacts leaving the country without a trace, the system has proven inadequate in the face of both modern-day art-collecting and cultural preservation. The threat of our heritage being exported away is eminent; and Ahuja holds both policy-makers and private collectors to the task of safeguarding it.