The National Gallery of Australia ignored the advice of its own attorney when buying the $5 million bronze sculpture of Shiva, according to a damning confidential document uncovered by the Australian documentary program Four Corners, which aired an hour-long investigation of the case on Monday.
The Shiva was taken off display Wednesday, some ten months after we first published evidence that it had been stolen from an Indian temple in 2006. Australian authorities are now preparing to return it and another Shiva sculpture at the Art Gallery of New South Wales to India, where Subhash Kapoor, the dealer who supplied them, is facing criminal trial. (Our complete coverage of the Kapoor case is here.)
Weeks before acquiring the Shiva in 2008, the NGA consulted with Australian solicitor Shane Simpson, an expert on art law. Simpson prepared a 12-page legal memo that cautioned NGA officials about the considerable risks of acquiring the sculpture.
The Shiva’s documentation was “at best, thin,” Simpson said in the brief, and there was an “inherent risk in the purchase.” He called the available information “minimal” and described the NGA’s due diligence investigation as “inadequate.”
“There is no evidence that provides any clue as to the origin of the object,” Simpson noted. Among the four likely possibilities he listed: “stolen from the original source (e.g. a temple)” and “unlawfully excavated.” Likewise, the museum had no information as to when the object was exported from India. “The absence of official documentation suggests that the object was exported without compliance” with India’s national patrimony laws of 1959 and 1972.
“There must be a much deeper enquiry made before title can be confirmed,” Simpson urged. Among the specific steps that Simpson said the museum should take:
- Contact the India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, which monitors the illicit trade, and Indian diplomatic officials to see if they objected to the purchase.
- Ask Raj Mehgoub, the alleged former owner, to provide documentation on the Shiva’s legal export from India.
- Ask Kapoor for documents about his purchase of the Shiva from Mehgoub.
- Confer with leading Indian experts on Chola art
The NGA appears to have taken none of these steps, and acquired the Shiva weeks later.
Presciently, Simpson warned the NGA that the guarantee provided by Kapoor was of limited value because “…that promise is still only as good as the continued existence of the firm and its liquidity at the time such a claim is made.” As we first reported in February, the NGA has filed a lawsuit against Kapoor seeking to recover its $5 million that will likely be undermined by this very fact. It is likely futile for the very reasons Simpson stated.
Simpson’s brief failed to raise what was perhaps the most obvious concern: that the provenance documents supplied by Kapoor had been forged. Indeed, Simpson stated he had “a high degree of certainty” that there could be no successful claim based on the 1970 UNESCO treaty or India’s 1972 law because the Shiva had likely left India before they were enacted. This was a glaring overstatement that likely gave the NGA a false sense of security. In fact, the Shiva left India illicitly in 2006 and both those treaties have been cited in India’s demand the sculpture be returned, according to a March 26 press release from Australia’s attorney general.
NGA’s Due Diligence Memo
Monday’s Four Corners program was largely based on information uncovered over the past year in a joint investigation carried out by myself; Indian art aficionado Vijay Kumar of Singapore; arts reporter Michaela Boland of The Australian; journalist R. Srivathsan of The Hindu. The earliest work on the Kapoor case was done by antiquities trade researcher Damien Huffer, who provided me with essential help early on. I was interviewed for the program, but the work of my other colleagues was not credited, as it should have been.
That said, the Four Corners team did uncover new information, including a detailed accounting of the NGA’s due diligence that the museum provided confidentially to George Brandis, Australia’s Attorney General and Minister for the Arts.
The due diligence memo reveals the provenance for all 22 works of art that the NGA acquired from Kapoor between 2002 and 2011 for $11 million, and 11 additional Kapoor objects now on loan to the museum.
Among the revelations:
Five of the 22 objects were said to have come from Raj Mehgoub, whose humble lifestyle we’ve described previously. The NGA was apparently untroubled by the fact that the supposed owner of a $30 million art collection lived in a Philadelphia duplex worth just $83,000.
Three of the objects cited the previous owner as Salina Mohamed, Kapoor’s longtime girlfriend. In December, Mohamed was charged with four counts of criminal possession of stolen property and one count of conspiracy. Prosecutors say she was involved in the fabrication of fake ownership histories for Kapoor’s stolen objects.
Kapoor’s daughter Mamta Sager donated eleven paintings and a lithograph to American Friends of the National Gallery of Australia, an U.S. non-profit that acts as a pass-thru for donations to the museum. Sager was named, but not charged, in a criminal case filed in New York against Kapoor’s sister Sushma Sareen.
One object reportedly came from another of Kapoor’s ex-girlfriends, Paramaspry Punusamy, the owner of Dalhousie Enterprises and Jazmin Asian Arts in Singapore. Punsamy is reported to have triggered the Kapoor investigation after falling out with him over a lawsuit in 2009.
Kapoor claimed to have consulted with several leading Asian art experts, including Stephen Markel (left), curator of Asian art of LACMA, which acquired 62 objects from Kapoor and has had other alleged entanglements with the illicit trade; Robert Knox, the former keeper of Asian art at the British Museum; Vidya Dehejia, a professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University.
On the Shiva acquisition, the NGA has long claimed it consulted with a leading Indian expert who had given his blessing for the acquisition. The museum has refused to name the expert, but Four Corners identified him as Dr. Ramachandran Nagaswamy, a leading authority on Chola bronzes.
One problem: Dr. Nagaswamy says he has “absolutely no recollection” of ever speaking with anyone at the NGA.
Here is the full NGA report, including Simpson’s brief, as published by Four Corners: