In an antique land
Kishore Singh / New Delhi October 7, 2009, 0:29 IST
India does not have a tradition of collecting or trading in antiques because the state discourages it.
In other countries collecting antiques is a lucrative tradition. In
India, the business is fraught with so many rules and regulations that
no collector or investor wants to get involved in the business of
making money from antiques. Few countries can boast a heritage as old
as India’s, fewer still the kind of riches one chances upon in almost
every village or town, and certainly no one has had an unbroken
tradition of craftsmanship stretching across centuries as in this
country. So why is it that laws meant to safeguard these treasures end
up with a draconian sting that has done little to end trafficking in
antiques but everything to curb open collecting? More so when the
latter activity would bring these priceless treasures out of private
or government vaults into showrooms or even specialised museums?
On the face of it, the state is hardly to blame. It has an Antiquities
and Art Treasures Act of 1972 that comes with a rider: anything that
is not registered is illegal. In a country in which craftsmanship is
taken for granted, where homes came with temples attached, and art was
simply a way of living, no one thought of these things as treasures,
so where was the concept of complying with a silly government rule? In
any case, where are the government offices that make this convenient?
Or is it simply another regulation to harass people and raid their
homes: Where did you get this Ganesh idol from? Do you have the papers
to prove it? How much did it cost 200 years ago? Can you prove this
was the same idol, and not another one?
It is neither feasible nor desirable to do such audits across the
country. The scale of what you will likely find in Indian homes is
simply too vast to come under any such law — and it’s not just art,
but photographs, textiles, furniture, porcelain, gold, silver,
books… .But since there is a law, observed less by letter than as a
whip with which to scare genuine collectors, it has made the whole
exercise of promoting trade or collecting of antique treasures red-
tape ridden. Dealers need to get a licence from the babus at the
ministry of culture, then record every transaction in their books as
well as in photographs. That has the effect of leaving antiques in the
realm of the grey market — and therefore open to smuggling to the
West, where at least the prices are more attractive than sales in India.
That Indian antiques are still nowhere close to their potential is
evident from the prices they net at international auctions. Some of
the finest miniature art, or Islamic objets d’art, for instance, leave
out the financially rich NRI or other Indians from the loop, who
simply see the lack of open trade in antiques as less than an
attractive option. Even though these auction houses will give you
papers of provenance, who is to say that the government will take
these at face value? In any case, that many of these “disappeared”
from India, or were stolen —whether by the British, or even by the
families that once owned them, or by smugglers — means there may be
cases pending against their recovery (this is a little far-fetched,
few such heists have been reported to the police over the decades).
Does anyone have a legitimate claim, for example, to the necklace that
was once worn by Rani Jindan Kaur of Punjab, the very one that goes on
auction tomorrow at Bonhams in London? Who can have genuine papers of
provenance when it is a matter of record that it was looted by the
British as spoils of war and a gift for Queen Victoria? What would
those papers be worth to the Indian government?
Nor is the attempt to bring some of these treasures back to the
country likely to be smooth. Instead of welcoming them back, the
government imposes duty on them — whether on Gandhi memorabilia, or
Tipu Sultan’s stolen treasures! This makes collecting all the less
attractive. As a result of which, again, the prices at auctions don’t
have the kind of resonance that similar treasures from other countries
enjoy, because it eliminates a large chunk of potential (Indian)
Also, how does one set apart something that is a thousand years old
from something else that is a hundred years old? What does one do when
a Tagore painting (art) becomes a hundred years old (and therefore, an
antique) while hanging on your walls? What role does the state play
when your grandmother’s wedding sari is no longer a family heirloom
but a national treasure?
It would be far better if, instead of using the rules to flog Indian
collectors, the government’s thinly-stretched state machinery could be
used to set up guidance posts for evaluation purposes, and to
encourage registration not as an act of subversion but as one intended
to help individuals become collectors. That is when grey market forces
will be checked, and the process of collecting would become
transparent as well as fulfilling for individuals, and incentivised
for the state.
Instead of hiding our treasures, we need to cherish them and bring
them out. But is the minister of culture listening?