India in global bid to get back treasures

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By SEBANTI SARKAR
  • Published 18.05.10
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Calcutta, May 17: India has joined a global initiative to restore antiquities back to their countries of origin for the first time after decades of unsuccessfully trying to reclaim stolen treasures like the Koh-i-Noor diamond and the Birmingham Buddha.

“The legal process for restitution of antiquities is not only time-consuming but also expensive. An international campaign with Unesco’s backing is certainly the better option for us,” the director-general of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), Gautam Sengupta, said today, on the eve of International Museum Day.

Sengupta, who represented India at the Cairo conference hosted by Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities last month, said India’s official wish-list included fragments of the vandalised Peacock Throne preserved in Persia, the Amravati railings, a stolen Saraswati idol from the Bhoj temple that found its way to a museum in Europe and the Birmingham Buddha, originally from 7th Century Bihar but now the pride of a British museum.

“We have already petitioned Unesco to amend a convention that bans the export or ownership of stolen antiquities acquired after 1970. The pact also does not specify what must be done about artefacts stolen before 1970, which we want clarified in the amendment. Countries like the US must be made a party to the amended pact,” the ASI chief said.

The April conference also saw unanimity among the participants — Bolivia, China, Cyprus, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Iraq, Italy, Libya, Mexico, Nigeria, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka and Syria — about the need to regularly share information about stolen antiquities.

“We need to be realistic but it is possible to win back national treasures if everyone co-operates. Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, led by Zahl Hawass, has retrieved some 31,000 artefacts since 2002. India has also reclaimed a few antiquities like the bronze Vishnu from Sagardighi, Murshidabad, and the Amin relief from Haryana with Interpol’s help and through diplomatic negotiations,” Sengupta said.

Apart from strengthening laws, the focus of the Cairo conference was how to reduce time and legal costs.

Greece has been locked in a 30-year legal battle with the UK to retrieve the Elgin Marbles, a collection of classical Greek sculptures, while Peru wants to initiate legal action to reclaim Inca treasures from Yale University in the US but doesn’t have the resources.

Sengupta said the conference decided to draw up a single list of “unique items” to be returned to their countries of origin instead of countries individually spending their resources on legal battles. “Once this list is ready, these countries will jointly initiate a series of steps, including a diplomatic and legal campaign to get back the lost treasures,” he added.

Egypt, which has been trying to get back the Rosetta Stone — it contains rare samples of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing — and a bust of Queen Nefertiti from foreign museums, had broken off all ties with the Louvre in Paris till France returned fragments chipped off the wall of an Egyptian tomb.

So would India also adopt “non-co-operation” as a means to retrieve national treasures?

“Let the official minutes of the Cairo conference arrive and we will decide how to go about the joint campaign. Artefacts have and continue to be smuggled out of countries like India, China and Egypt. If museums in England, America and Europe were to return all such treasures to their countries of origin, they would have little left to display,” Sengupta said.

To begin with, he urged state governments to take “stronger steps” to curb looting from historical sites and museums.

Sengupta probably had home state Bengal in mind, where even Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel isn’t safe.