The National Gallery of Australia returned artefacts from its troubled Asian art collection to India at a handback ceremony in Canberra on Monday.
Two pieces, a 900-year-old stone statue of the Goddess Pratyangira and a third-century rock carving of Worshippers of the Buddha, were purchased from disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor in 2005 for $328,000 and $790,000 respectively.
The arts minister, Mitch Fifield, handed those objects back to the Indian arts minister, Mahesh Sharma, at a ceremony in the gallery’s Asian exhibition on Monday afternoon.
The NGA bought $11m worth of antiquities from Kapoor in recent decades, including a 900-year-old bronze Hindu “dancing shiva” statue, Shiva Nataraja for $5.6m in 2007. The Shiva Nataraja was handed back to the Indian government, alongside a $300,000 stone Shiva with Nandi, in 2004, after reports it had been stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu.
A third piece, a 900-year-old stone Buddha, was brought from Nancy Wiener Gallery, a New York-based antiquities dealer, for $1m in 2007.
The dealer refunded that price last year after it was revealed it had an “unclear” buyers’ history, prior to being acquired by Nancy Wiener Gallery and sold to the NGA in “good faith”, and may have been stolen. It was also handed back to India on Monday, though not in the ceremony. There’s no suggestion Nancy Wiener Gallery acted unethically.
An independent review earlier this year found that 22 of the 36 Asian art objects acquired by the NGA between 1968 and 2013 had questionable ownership history and 11 of those were considered to be “highly problematic”.
The review, by the former high court justice Susan Crennan, found items were of highly problematic provenance, “because documentation recording a recent chain of ownership now appears dubious or because there is no certainty about when, and in what circumstances, an object was exported from its country of origin, or both”.
Crennan said the objects had been purchased in “good faith” by the NGA.
The review found that 14 of the 22 questionable objects were purchased from Kapoor’s former dealership, Art of the Past. Kapoor was extradited to India in 2011 to face charges over a multimillion dollar looting scandal.
In the case of the Pratyangira statue, provenance issues were confirmed when researchers at the NGA examined new photographs indicating it was in India in 1974, which conflicted with the provenance history provided to the NGA and suggested that documentation was false. It has since been reported missing to the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu police.
Separate photographic evidence showed the Worshippers of the Buddha carving was in India as late as the 1990s, which again contradicted the provenance history provided to the NGA.
“This new evidence means the NGA cannot legally or ethically retain these works, and returning them to India is unquestionably the right thing to do,” NGA director Gerard Vaughan said in a statement on Monday. “We have been working closely with the Archaeological Survey of India and the Indian high commissioner in Australia to find the best outcome.”
The Indian high commissioner to Australia, Navdeep Suri, welcomed the return of the sculptures, and said he “commended the National Gallery of Australia for its approach to dealing with this complex and difficult issue”.