WHAT’S BEEN RETURNED?
Worshippers of the Buddha, created for the stūpa of Chandavaram, Prakasam District, Andhra Pradesh, India, in the 2nd or 3rd century.
WHAT’S THE ISSUE?
In 2016, art historian Robert Arlt, alerted the National Gallery to evidence that Worshippers of the Buddha was stolen from the Chandavaram Archaeological Site Museum between the mid-1990s and 2005. The ancient limestone decorative panel was purchased by the Gallery in 2005 from New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor who, six years later, was arrested and extradited to India in relation to the illicit trade in cultural antiquities.
From 1972 to 1977, excavation of a site close to Chandavaram unearthed one of the largest stūpas in southern India. Numerous artefacts were uncovered including reliefs taken from the stūpa dome and walls. By the 1990s, many of these reliefs could still be found in situ, with the remaining stored in a site museum and a number given to museums in Hyderabad, India.
In his masters’ thesis and research on the decorative panels of the stūpa near Chandavaram, Arlt learnt of a series of violent robberies from the Chandavaram museum and identified one of the stolen objects in the National Gallery’s collection.
Arlt made a point by point comparison of the sculpture depicted in two photographs – one sourced from the National Gallery showing the panel in situ between 1972 and 1977 and the other from an article by then Superintendent of Police of Prakasam District Kumar Vishwajeet showing the panel in the Chandavaram museum in the mid-1990s or thereafter – which allowed Worshippers of the Buddha to confidently be identified as the missing panel from the stūpa at Chandavaram. The timeline contradicted the provenance given to the National Gallery at the time of acquisition and implied the work was illegally sourced.
The available photographic evidence and reports of thefts indicated that Worshippers of the Buddha was likely to have been removed from an inventoried archaeological collection in or after the 1990s. By this time, the export of antiquities, a category to which Worshippers of the Buddha belongs, by any person or organisation other than the Government of India or its designated agents was prohibited under The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972.
Following Arlt’s discovery, in September 2016, Worshippers of the Buddha was deaccessioned and returned to India. Subsequently, the National Gallery introduced stricter due diligence guidelines and the scope of its Asian Art Provenance Project was extended to include all objects in the Asian art collection.
WHAT WAS SAID?
India's Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma, who took part in a handover ceremony at the National Gallery, said the return would ‘add colour and beauty’ to bilateral relations. He added that Worshippers of the Buddha has emotional value for the people of India. Then National Gallery Director, Gerard Vaughan affirmed, ‘returning this work to India is unquestionably the right thing to do.’