Tag Archives: Michael Brand

The Crennan Report: The NGA’s Ex Post Facto Due Diligence Finds 22 “Questionable” Asian Antiquities

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In an unprecedented review of its Asian art collection, the National Gallery of Australia has determined that 22 of the 36 objects examined to date have “insufficient or questionable provenance documentation.”

Among the problematic objects are 14 that came from Manhattan dealer Subhash Kapoor’s Art of the Past, including the $5 million Dancing Shiva returned to India by Prime Minister Tony Abbott last year and several others we’ve highlighted in previous reports. Also highlighted in the report is the museum’s Kushan Buddha, which our report last year revealed had been sold the museum with a false ownership history by Manhattan dealer Nancy Wiener. Wiener agreed to refund the $1.08 million purchase price, and the NGA will return the sculpture to India this year.

Eight other questionable objects came through Wiener and another Manhattan Asian art dealerCarlton Rochell; the Swiss dealer/collector George Ortiz; and auction houses Spink and Son and Christie’s, among other familiar names. We’ll detail those objects in a subsequent report.

The ex post facto review is part of the museum’s Asian Art Provenance Project, which in the wake of an international looting scandal aims to assess and publish the collecting histories of all 5,000 art objects in the museum’s collection. It was sparked in part by our series of reports starting in June 2013 that revealed several of the museum’s prized Asian antiquities had been looted from Indian temples and sold by Manhattan dealer Subhash Kapoor with false ownership histories.

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While years late, the Australian review goes beyond what American musuems undertook in the wake of similar looting scandals a decade ago, and sets an important new standard for due diligence: independent review and complete transparency with provenance.

 

Notably, the NGA asked an outside lawyer, Former Justice of the High Court of Australia Susan Crennan, to independently review and publish the project’s initial conclusions. In her 89-page report, Crennan reviews the relevant international laws and treaties before adopting a clear standard of review:

  1. does the object have a credible chain of ownership?
  2. the object was outside its probable country of origin before 1970, or was legally exported from that country after 1970?

For 22 of the objects, her answer was no.

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On several occasions she cited (without credit) images first published here showing NGA objects the in process of being smuggled out of India to Kapoor. “Dr [Michael] Brand, who supervised the [Getty’s return of 40 looted objects], stated that such photos were the most convincing pieces of circumstantial evidence of theft,” Crennan noted.

Sprinkled throughout her report is commentary that serves as common sense advice to those conducting their own due diligence:

  • “Circumstantial evidence can be as compelling as direct evidence, especially when several pieces of circumstantial evidence all support a particular conclusion.”
  • Due diligence should include “direct contact with any living consignor, or previous owner, particularly to elicit the date and circumstances of the export of a work from a country of origin. The absence of such details increases the risk that the [acquirer] will not obtain good title from a vendor.”
  • Even “reputable” dealers should be treated with skepticism, and the word of a dealer should not be taken as fact unless it can be independently corroborated.
  • Buyers should “require revelation of the identity of any consignor, or previous owners of a work of art (which can be conveyed confidentially). They might also require direct contact with any consignor, or previous owner, so as to be satisfied of the date and circumstances of any export of an object from a country of origin.” Auction houses in particular should be pressed to reveal their consignors.
  • “Listing such objects on a dedicated website achieves several desirable aims:  it constitutes notice to the whole world (including any true owner) of a museum’s custody and possession of an object;  it encourages exchange of provenance information between museums, especially those with objects of shared provenance; and it invites holders of a relevant interest, or relevant information, to come forward with that information.”

Buyers of antiquities would be wise to learn from the National Gallery of Australia’s example and follow these procedures before buying ancient art, not years later.

A copy of Crennan’s complete report can be found here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Shiva Goes Home: Australia’s Prime Minister Returns Looted Kapoor Idols to India

 

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On Friday, Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott will return two looted idols seized from Australian museums during a meeting with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi in New Delhi.

Abbott will personally deliver the National Gallery of Australia‘s $5 million Dancing Shiva and the Art Gallery of New South Wales‘ $300,000 Ardhanarishvara to Modi as a “gesture of good will” at a state reception at the Indian presidential palace, the Australian’s Michaela Boland reported in Friday’s paper (front page seen above.)

As we first revealed here a year ago, both objects were stolen from temples in India and later sold to the museums by Manhattan dealer Subhash Kapoor, who, his gallery manager has admitted, created falsified ownership documents to hide their illicit origins.

The Australian returns mark the first major repatriations in the Kapoor case, but are unlikely to be the last. Dozens more Kapoor objects acquired by the Australian museums were sold with false ownership histories similar to those used with the returned objects. Several will likely play a prominent role in Kapoor’s criminal trial in Chennai, India, which has been on hold pending the return of the NGA’s looted Shiva. (below)

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Meanwhile, Kapoor’s international network of looters and smugglers is still being mapped by authorities in the United States, who have already seized over $100 million in art from the dealer’s Manhattan gallery and storage facilities. Federal investigators in the United States are methodically working through mountains of evidence seized from Kapoor, probing his ties to a number of American and foreign museums that did business with the dealer. Indian authorities, meanwhile, are considering a broader campaign to reclaim stolen antiquities from foreign institutions.

220-2004s-339x605_q85Over the past two years, we’ve traced hundreds of suspect Kapoor objects to museums around the world. To date, the Kapoor case has received the most attention in Australia, whose National Gallery for months stonewalled press and government inquiries and dismissed mounting evidence before agreeing to take the stolen idol off display. The Art Gallery of New South Wales took a slightly more proactive approach, releasing the ownership history that Kapoor supplied for its sculpture of  Ardhanarishvara (left.) Soon after, Indian art blogger Vijay Kumar identified the temple from which the sculpture was stolen.

The idols have been in the Australian government’s possession for months, but their fate remained unclear until today. The According to The Australian, Abbott decided during a July dinner with George Brandis, Australia’s Attorney General and Arts Minister, to present the idols to Modi during his two-day state visit to India. “Brandis told him the issue was a potential problem in the relationship between the nation­s and Mr Abbott said returning the statues would be an important statement of goodwill towards the Indian Prime Minister, elected to office in May,” the newspaper reported.

Underscoring the diplomatic importance of the returns, Abbott reportedly wanted to have his presidential plane transport the objects directly but they were too heavy and were dispatched on Wednesday by jumbo jet instead.

Meanwhile, the National Gallery officials who played a key role in acquiring the Shiva – despite the warnings of their own attorney – are quietly exiting the scene. Curator Robyn Maxwell, who handled the negotiations with Kapoor, retired quietly last month, the Australian reported. Director Ronald Radford will retire this month, his legacy tarnished by his mishandling of the case. The Art Gallery NSW’s Michael Brand, who has taken a more open approach to looting investigations in Australia and previously at the Getty, has been mentioned as a possible successor.

 

Lost and Found: Images Show Art Gallery NSW’s Sculpture Was Stolen From An Indian Temple

A 900-year-old Indian statue at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales was stolen from an Indian temple sometime after 1974, newly identified images show.

Ardhanarishvara

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Last week, the Art Gallery NSW released provenance records for the Chola-era sculpture of Ardhanarishvara which it purchased in 2004 for more than $300,000. The documents were supplied by Subhash Kapoor, the prominent Manhattan antiquities dealer who sold the sculpture to the museum. (Previous Kapoor coverage here.) The records claim a New York antiquities collector had purchased the sculpture in 1970 from a handicraft dealer in Dehli and held it ever since.

Today we can say that ownership history, like others supplied by Kapoor, was fabricated. Images identified by Poetry in Stone, a blog that celebrates South Asian temple sculpture, show the statue was in situ at the Vriddhachalam temple in Tamil Nadu, India for at least four years after 1970 and was subsequently stolen.

The image above left shows the sculpture in Sydney as it looks today. The image above right was published in Douglas Barrett’s 1974 book Early Chola Architecture and Sculpture 866 – 1014 and shows the sculpture in its original context at the Vriddhachalam temple.

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How the identification was made

The discovery of the sculpture’s origin is a result of rapid international collaboration. After requests from Jason and The Australian’s Michaela Boland, the Art Gallery NSA released the Kapoor provenance documents on June 25. On June 28th, A. Srivathsan at The Hindu wrote a story about the recent Kapoor revelations with a link to ChasingAphrodite.com

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One of the people who read the story was Vijay Kumar, the creator of Poetry in Stone. Kumar came to this site, saw our post on the Ardhanarishvara and recognized it immediately.

Four years earlier, Kumar had published an iconographic study of Ardhanarishvara, the androgynous manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva and his lover Parvati. One of the temple sculptures he singled out as the “perfect form” of the god was in the Vriddhachalam temple:

You can see the female portion in full triple flexion ( tribanga) and to compensate for it, the right leg of Shiva is bent fully. This causes the male torso to lean at the awkward angle and though the sculpture would look pleasing it would not be aesthetically appealing. So he comes up with an ingenious solution. Make Shiva rest or lean on to something and the readily available option is his mount or vehicle – Nandhi. Presto, problem solved. Add lots of beautiful ornamentation, develop the differences in the dressing style and this perfected model becomes a standard for all Ardhanari images henceforth.

When Kumar recognized the Sydney sculpture as the very same “perfect model,” he dug through his files and found the 1974 plate in the Barrett book and other records of the statue, which was well documented in its original context. Here is an image of the statue in situ with a Tamil inscription above the niche from the archives of the American Academy of Benares, Varanasi:

0 RIn an email to me today, Kumar wrote:

“This particular form was my personal favorite as its beauty appealed to me in a queer form: despite two of the main limbs, the hands mutilated, the sculpture still retained its sinuous grace. If you were to look at an ordinary piece of art with such a deformity your eye would instantly go to the broken parts. However, in this piece unless someone specifically points it out to you, at first glance you tend to miss the broken hands! Apart from that, the brilliant ornamentation and their swaying etc. are wonderfully sculpted. The ear of the bull comes a bit out of the composition as well. Overall the contours of the kosta block itself are unique as well and offer the vital clue.”

Coincidently, Kumar is a native of Chennai, the Tamil Nadu capital where Kapoor is currently facing trial. He currently lives in Singapore but has reached out to contacts in Tamil Nadu to determine when and how the sculpture was stolen from the Vriddhachalam temple. We’ll keep you posted on what he finds out.

Michael Brand

Michael Brand

Meanwhile, the revelations raise several questions. When will other museums release provenance information provided by Kapoor? If the Art Gallery NSW sculpture had been so widely published, why did the museum not identify it as stolen before the 2004 acquisition? And how will the museum’s director Michael Brand respond to compelling new evidence that objects acquired before his arrival in Sydney were apparently stolen and smuggled out of India.

Brand, whose specialty is South Asia art, faced similar questions at the Getty Museum and did the right thing.

Will he now?

Coming Clean: Australia’s Art Gallery of New South Wales Releases Kapoor Documents

imgresThe Art Gallery of New South Wales has released provenance information for one of the six objects it purchased from Subhash Kapoor, the New York antiquities dealer currently facing trial in India for trafficking in looted art. (Past coverage here.)

UPDATE 8/18/14: Indian authorities have concluded the Ardhanarishvara sculpture described below was stolen from the Vridhdhagiriswarar Temple in Tamil Nadu India in 2002. The thieves have not been identified, but two years later Kapoor sold the sculpture to AGNSW for $400,000 with a false ownership history.

The release comes in the wake of our revelations about looted objects at the National Gallery of Australia, which acquired 21 objects from Kapoor, including a $5 million sculpture of Shiva that was stolen from an Indian temple not long before it was offered to the museum with bogus ownership history. The NGA has refused multiple requests to release provenance information on any of the objects in its collection, despite compelling evidence several of those objects were looted.

We made similar requests to Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales, which has acknowledged acquiring six objects from Kapoor between 1994 and 2004. Last week, the museum posted information about the Kapoor objects on the provenance research section of its website, which had previously been dedicated to European paintings. After consulting with his board, museum director Michael Brand released on Tuesday the ownership history provided by Kapoor for one of those objects.

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Ardhanarishvara

In 2004, the Gallery purchased this Chola-period sculpture from Kapoor for more than $300,000. The 44-inch stone figure represents Ardhanarishvara, the androgynous form of Shiva and Parvati. It comes from Tamil Nadu, home to some 2500 important temples to Shiva. The image of Ardhanarishvara was likely in a niche on an external wall.

Kapoor provided two documents with the sculpture.

One is a receipt dated 1970, purportedly from Uttam Singh and Sons, the Delhi “copper and brass palace” that sold the sculpture to a private collector.

Ardhanarishvara receipt

The second document purports to be a 2003 “Letter of Provenance” on letterhead from Art of the Past, Kapoor’s Madison Ave. gallery. It is signed by “Raj Mehgoub,” who claims to be the wife of a diplomat who lived in Delhi from 1968 to 1971.

Aradhanareshwara prov

It is unclear whether the documents are genuine. Uttam Singh and Sons appears to be a real business in Delhi, but we could not reach the owners and did not find record of a Raj or Abdulla Mehgoub.

The documents bear a striking resemblance to other ownership records provided by Kapoor that appear to have been falsified. See, for example, this receipt from a Calcutta gallery for a pair of statues that photos show were in India recently:

Dwarapalas receipt

The Art Gallery of New South Wales acknowledges it did not obtain provenance information for the other five objects acquired from Kapoor, whose total value was about $100,000. The museum says it has not yet been contacted by Indian or American authorities investigating Kapoor.

Michael Brand

Despite lapses in the past, the Gallery should be congratulated for its transparent approach in the current case. Clearly Michael Brand learned from his experience at the Getty Museum, where — as we recount in Chasing Aphrodite — his predecessors’ stonewalling of Italian investigators prolonged the Getty’s troubles for years.

Other museums should follow the Gallery’s lead and use their provenance websites to publish all relevant information about antiquities obtained from Kapoor.