NGA Asian art report – a warning and a ‘worthy example’

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Shiva the lord of the dance

YOU could almost hear the collective sigh of relief emanating from the National Gallery of Australia today as the long-awaited independent review into the provenance of its Asian art collection was released.

Former Justice of the High Court of Australia, Susan Crennan was appointed by the NGA in 2015 to independently review work undertaken by the Asian Art Provenance Project, formed to look at the provenance issues in its Asian Art collection.

The report found that 22 objects have insufficient or questionable provenance documentation – this includes “Shiva as Lord of the Dance” [Nataraja]”, returned to India in 2014 by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott and the “Seated Buddha” which will return to India this year.

Within that same group, 14 acquisitions were from Art of the Past, the business of Mr Subhash Kapoor, who now awaits trial in India on charges of conspiracy to commit theft.

As well, the review found that  12 objects have satisfactory provenance documentation and two objects require further research.

With the UNESCO Convention of 17 November 1970 in mind as a standard, the report found that the interpretation of the Australian legislation, had been consistent with the gallery’s legal advice and the practical policies applied, but warned that the NGA needs to be constantly vigilant in its systems and procedures to assess and address risks, and further recommended displaying its provenance research on a dedicated website.

Mrs Crennan was provided with 36 internal audit reports on objects acquired by the NGA between 1968 and 2013, including 14 acquisitions from Art of the Past (operated by Mr Subhash Kapoor). The 36 reports included the Shiva and Seated Buddha; the latter will be returned to India this year following the NGA’s success in securing a refund of the purchase price from Nancy Wiener Galleries, and an undertaking by the Nancy Wiener Galleries to return the sculpture to India.

The NGA, which maintains it is a victim of fraud in this case, is not alone, as other collecting institutions (particularly in North America) have also acquired works from Mr Kapoor.

NGA director Dr Gerard Vaughan said he welcomed Mrs Crennan’s independent assessment which he said clarified the legal and ethical framework in which the NGA’s collecting should take place; this will prove invaluable for ongoing provenance-checking and comparative risk assessment.

After a briefing earlier this week by the NGA, Indian High Commissioner Mr Navdeep Suri congratulated the NGA for its work. “The NGA’s collaboration with senior officials of the Archaeological Survey of India in working to determine the provenance of the Seated Buddha has been truly exemplary,” he said, adding “In establishing a framework for restitution of a stolen property to the country of its origin, NGA has set a worthy example for other countries and institutions to follow.”

A copy of Mrs Crennan’s report may be found at nga.gov.au

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