Right of return: Pakistan
WHAT’S BEING RETURNED?
Head of a bodhisattva 3rd–4th century CE
WHAT’S THE ISSUE?
For the past eight years, the National Gallery has undertaken significant research into the history of ownership — or provenance — of high priority works in the Asian art collection. The handover of Head of a bodhisattva marks the first repatriation of a work to a country other than India under the auspices of the Asian art collection review.
The National Gallery acquired Head of a bodhisattva in 2006 as part of its strategy to represent important historical and regional styles in South Asian art. It was bought from Art of the Past, a New York gallery owned by Subhash Kapoor. At the time, it was believed that the work had been in an American private collection since its acquisition in Germany in 1970. In 2011, Kapoor was arrested in Frankfurt, Germany, for his involvement in the illicit art trade. Further related charges were laid against him in New York in 2019 and in November 2022 he received a ten-year prison sentence from a court in Tamil Nadu, India. While these charges do not specifically refer to Head of a bodhisattva, they detail the vendor’s alleged illicit art supply routes from both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The private collector who supposedly owned the work until the Gallery acquired it, Monika Krebs, was named as a co‑conspirator in the New York charges, specifically in relation to supplying false letters of provenance stating that she bought works of art of Indian and Gandharan origin in Germany in 1970/71. Head of a bodhisattva was removed from the national collection in June 2021 based on the likelihood of it having been stolen and illegally exported from its country of origin.
When the work was deaccessioned, it was unclear to the Gallery whether it was the cultural property of Afghanistan or Pakistan. Recent research has established that the sculpture was likely created in and looted from the Peshawar region, now part of Pakistan. To ensure that the piece makes an ongoing contribution to scholarship, prior to dispatch and with the endorsement of the Pakistan High Commission, the Gallery’s Digital Media Team used 3D capture technology (photogrammetry) to create an accurate digital model of Head of a bodhisattva in association with the gandhara.net project. This international academic project is piloting a digital repatriation framework for ancient manuscripts, inscriptions and works of art, aimed at making international collections of Gandharan art and manuscripts accessible to creator communities and the Buddhist diaspora. On 22 August 2022, the National Gallery formally handed Head of a bodhisattva to His Excellency Mr Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri, High Commissioner for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.
WHAT WAS SAID?
High Commissioner Chaudhri described the handing‑over ceremony as a landmark event. He added that it was a practical manifestation of cooperation between countries and institutions in this important area. The High Commissioner acknowledged the Provenance Research Project of the National Gallery of Australia and thanked its entire team for making the return of the historical work of art to Pakistan possible.
This story was first published in The Annual 2022.