Plundering The Past For Profit

Written by Suneet Chopra | Updated: Jun 29 2003, 05:30am hrs
First, the CBI slaps a case against Bowrings and now we have a scam involving the plunder of monuments on a massive scale, with the plunder finding its way into Christies and Sothebys auctions.

This has surfaced with the arrest of Jaipur-based Vaman Narayan Ghia. Apparently, he has succeeded in smuggling out no less than 700 pieces of antique art to the sales of the big auction houses alone.

These are not restricted to small but expensive items alone. His smuggled objects include a five-quintal stone figure of Varaha stolen from Attru village in Rajasthan in 1998, which has now found its way to the museum of Dr R Russek in Switzerland, who had apparently bought no less than 250 works from Ghia over a period of time.

What is appaling is that plunder of ancient cultures (including that of Iraq) is fuelling the collections of the super-rich whose taste in art is obviously no better than the grave-diggers. It is they who scour the earth for broken bits of rock and lifeless academic art.

And in the process, they are tearing the cultural history of the world out of its context, making it impossible to relate to it except in the most abstract way.

They are making a major contribution to confounding the complex history of the varied material cultures of the world and reducing these to mere accessories or objects of art. These collectors are no better than the pirates of the 16th century and their contribution to furthering the cause of culture is no better.

What is remarkable is how small the stakes are that encourage this plunder. Antiquities sell for far less than works of contemporary art as investment. An average piece is pegged at between Rs 12 lakh and Rs 16.5 lakh. This is a good deal less than a largish canvas of MF Husain.

So one wonders why people are prepared to enter a life of crime to trade in antiquities when they could far more easily make better profits by buying and selling contemporary art with no legal hassles at all

I would even go so far as to say that individual collectors should leave antique collection and take to investing in present-day arts and crafts instead.

There would be no question of breaking the law. Judicious patronage would ensure that better works are produced, raising the general level of the culture of our times and a more creative ambience would be created.

None of this can result from antique dealing or smuggling. In fact, in my view, private antique collection is work for junk-sellers while collecting contemporary art is involved in creating a new set for cultural and aesthetic relations for the future.

This requires a much more active participation from the collector of contemporary art than a mere accumulator of antiquities. Also the collector of contemporary art can see the material result of his or her patronage as an ongoing process of creativity in productive activity.

The accumulator of antiquities merely leaves behind a trail of plundered sites, police cases and convictions. Nothing could be further from creative concerns than this.

The question arises then that why are people prepared to go to such lengths to carry on with an activity that is neither the best investment available in the art market, nor free from criminality

In fact, in comparison to a similar concern with contemporary artistic creativity, the choice of the undertakers passion seems inexplicable on the face of it.

If one looks deeper, however, one realises that in a world made faceless by the accumulation of corporates, even the wealthiest need to make a show of their assets to remind themselves and the world that they are something other than the bank balances and shares they own.

But the majority have neither the time, the knowledge, nor the taste for the effort required to assert such an identity. So conspicuous expenditure on plundered antiquities, cars, designer products, fashions or even social events, allows them to acquire the same self-esteem for far less effort. This is the lazy mans option. This is what they fool themselves with until time or the law catches up with them.

But then, the way to hell, as the adage goes, is paved with the best intentions. So perfectly sound people are being forced to wake up to the truth that what they see as a necessary expression of their human presence, is laced with the qualities that are its very opposite: plunder and criminality.

Indeed, social attitudes have to change a lot to put an end to the trade in plundering graves and archeological sites.

It is far better not to try to be lazy or fool others with borrowed plumes and take the trouble to make an original contribution to the development of art and culture by collecting contemporary art and leaving restoration and conservation to collective bodies and the state. Individuals, generally, have neither the time nor the resources to accomplish these tasks effectively, so it is better to steer clear of them.