The illegal antiquities trade in Iraq and Syria is booming, with the black market for looted artifacts generating millions of dollars for crime and terrorism. But the trade is generating big business in another, perhaps unexpected, location: India.
According to experts, the problem remains mostly undocumented for several reasons, including lax laws both within India and internationally, as well as the failure by world heritage bodies and governments to adequately address the issue.
The ramifications can be both acute and severe, according to Tess Davis, Executive Director of the non-profit Antiquities Coalition.
“The Global Terrorism Index ranks India as one of the top ten countries with the most terrorist activity and it doesn’t require the sale of many artifacts to finance a major attack,” she explained to The Media Line. “The world has focused on the connection between cultural racketeering and terrorist financing with Daesh
(Islamic State), but this risk extends far beyond Iraq and Syria, and far beyond the Middle East and North Africa.”
The connection between the black-market sale of antiquities and the funding of the Islamic State’s operations
are well-known. This prompted the United Nations Security Council to adopt in 2015 a resolution recognizing the link between this illicit trade and the financing of terrorism.
India’s illegal antiquities trade has become particularly problematic in the United States, where a majority of loot smuggled in from abroad comes from the Asian country.
“In 2016 alone, $79,092,426 worth of India’s arts and antiquities came into the US, and that’s just as declared imports,” Davis said. “It’s impossible to know how many of these are looted and how many others came in undeclared. But we’re talking about big money. However, anyone thinking of buying one of these pieces should remember, while there is a large ‘legal’ market, there are few legal sources of ancient Indian art. Most pieces were hacked off from sacred sites at some point in their history.”
Anuraag Saxena is one of the founders of the India Pride Project (IPP), an organization that works to recover India’s stolen artifacts. The group, which was founded five years ago, relies on a network of volunteers across the globe who use social media to track and identify pillaged artifacts.
“More stuff reaches the US from India than the rest of the world put together,” Saxena conveyed to The Media Line. “Fifty-two percent of art and heritage recorded going into the United States originates in India,” a situation he attributes to Delhi having “de-prioritized” cultural issues due to more pressing matters.
“The whole genesis of the IPP is that history belongs to its people, and if nobody else will ensure [that this happens], then we will,” Saxena affirmed.
The Singapore-based art enthusiast added that while India does currently have an antiquities protection law in place, the country is simply not equipped to deal with conservation and has no authority tasked with enforcement.
“We’ve not had one significant heritage criminal convicted, ever [in India’s history],” he emphasized.
Though tens of thousands of artifacts have been removed—legally or otherwise—from India in recent decades, some do wind up back in the country.
Last week, the Metropolitan Museum in New York announced it was returning two sculptures to the Indian government, including an 8th-century stone statue representing a Hindu goddess, as well as a 3rd-century limestone sculpture depicting a male deity. The Met explained that while the items were donated several years ago, research staff later discovered they had been taken without permission from a temple and a museum, respectively, in India.
“We deeply appreciate the sincere efforts and collaboration of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in this return of Indian antiquities to India,” the Consulate General of India subsequently wrote in a statement. “We will continue to work closely with the Museum and other US authorities and institutions to identify Indian archaeological art that belongs in India.”
IPP played an instrumental role in generating public awareness about the source of the items, which according to the Met were both bequeathed anonymously. The return of looted artifacts from a private institution directly to India is quite rare. In most cases, law enforcement agencies are involved and there is a transfer between governments.
This was the case with a 12th-century bronze Buddha statue stolen in 1961 from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) museum and which later surfaced at an art fair in the Netherlands. Earlier this week, the item—one in a series of 14 looted pieces—was returned by London’s Metropolitan Police to Indian officials during a ceremony marking India’s Independence Day.
“The two artifacts from the Metropolitan Museum have already reached Delhi, and the ones in the United Kingdom, the handover took place in London,” Vijay Kumar, a co-founder of IPP, specified to The Media Line. He revealed that there are other items at the Met that the group is working to have returned, as well as a statue currently being held at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Lynda Albertson, CEO of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art (ARCA), identified the Buddha statue together with Kumar, who then alerted the authorities. Albertson said that the prevalence of the illegal trade is directly tied to a general lack of funding for groups combating it.
“Around the globe there are a number of experts tracking illicit antiquities who do so as unpaid volunteers,” she told The Media Line, pointing to IPP as a prime example. “While international government institutions and the press repeatedly voice concerns about how the channels of illicit trafficking of antiquities may have tie-ins to potential funding for terrorism and organized crime, no one, currently, is willing to step up to the plate and to commit to funding the work of these scholars.”
The result is that criminals involved in the black market can sell their stolen wares through auction houses or online without much scrutiny or consequences. Kumar noted that while it is difficult to ascertain whether the specific artifacts from the Met and the UK were linked to the funding of terrorism, the sale of looted objects is intimately linked to illegal activity.
“Most of the objects that are sent out of India try to go under the customs radar, by declaring a very low monetary value,” said Kumar, whose book The Idol Thief: The True Story of the Looting of India’s Temples
will be released later this month. “The real value of the item is then sent through other banking channels, and that’s where the terror aspect comes in because we don’t know exactly how these funds are used.”
Many Indian artifacts are also smuggled across the porous borders of Kashmir or Bangladesh. “We’re currently tracking a lot of banking transactions that end in Hong Kong and Bangkok and then those funds are [redirected] back towards India, and that is where we suspect there is a nefarious aspect.”
Kumar’s colleague Saxena believes that although India’s government is primarily to blame for the situation, world bodies such as the UN’s cultural organization, UNESCO, are part of the problem.
“One of the issues UNESCO displays is an over-centralization by Middle Eastern countries,” Saxena asserted. “Agendas are getting very polarized and funding is being directed towards specific political ends.
“I personally see very good reasons for why Israel and the US want out of UNESCO
,” he said. “The biggest program for heritage at UNESCO is Unite For Heritage, and it does not even recognize heritage destruction outside of conflict zones. It’s factually and morally wrong to make that assumption.”
By contrast, Davis from the Antiquities Coalition believes it is the job of other global agencies to tackle the issue. “UNESCO is doing wonderful work, but it is a cultural organization, its mandate is not to fight crime or terrorism,” she argued.
Antiquities experts have proposed numerous ways to alleviate the problem, foremost through the implementation of stricter legislation (especially in India), and also by creating an online database of artifacts to discourage their theft.
“There is a very important step that India could take to help close the American market to its stolen art and that is to sign a cultural heritage bilateral agreement—which is much like a treaty—with the United States,” Davis related. “Washington recently signed one with Libya, and has earlier agreements with other Asian nations like Cambodia and China, and these have been hugely effective.
“[These agreements] allow the US to restrict the import of protected cultural objects, while increasing responsible cultural exchange through museum loans and traveling exhibitions.”
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