2 Paris-bound statues stolen from ZIA
France finds it ‘highly suspicious’
Named ‘Vishnu’ and ‘Bust of Vishnu’, the statues are from Gupta era of the seventh century. Since being discovered in a dig at Mahasthangarh of Bogra, they had been kept at the National Museum. Their insurance value totalled 45,000 euros that is equivalent to around Tk 45 lakh, sources at the cultural ministry said.
Despite protest from art connoisseurs, the government was sending the statues along with 143 other artefacts to the Guimet Museum in the French capital under a deed signed with France. In the first phase, it sent 42 relics on December 1. The civil aviation authorities formed a five-member investigation committee yesterday to find out within the next three days those responsible for the heist.
“I had committed myself to bringing those back home safely. But I am shocked that such an unpleasant incident has occurred even before sending them,” Education and Cultural Affairs Adviser Ayub Quadri told The Daily Star at
his office yesterday. Lately at a press conference he had said it was a government level exhibition and all the artefacts would surely be returned by April 2008.
A statement from the French Embassy in Dhaka yesterday described the disappearance of the box as highly suspicious and said it could be the result of a conspiracy to embarrass France and Bangladesh. About importance of the stolen works of art, Dr Shamsuzzaman Khan, former director general of the National Museum, said, “Those are masterpieces and
very valuable to our cultural heritage and social history.”
Different sources said it was almost impossible to make off with the container box (wooden box number five) of the Vishnu statues weighing 64 kilograms without a car. Abdullah Al Hasan, general manager of cargo terminal at the ZIA, told The
Daily Star last night that vehicles of Civil Aviation Authorities, Bangladesh Biman, Air France, Voyager Airlines, police and other government agencies were working during that time.
“All those vehicles had permission to be there,” he added. Abdul Kuddus, senior conservation officer of Varendra Museum, first noticed that one out of the 13 boxes was missing in the cargo flight at around 1:00pm, said sources at the cultural ministry and law enforcers.
Kuddus was supposed to travel with the artefacts as the government courier. At around 8:00pm, the empty box of the Vishnu statues was found floating in a ditch beside the runway.
The law enforcers have so far detained 11 people for quizzing in connection with the heist. Earlier on Friday evening, Homebound, the shipper agent hired by the French government, carried the 145 artefacts in 13 boxes from the National Museum at Shahbagh to the cargo village at the ZIA.
The customs authorities checked those by opening the boxes one after another as it was not possible to scan those big crates handed over to the Air France officials at around 2:00am Saturday.
The cargo flight of Air France was supposed to leave for Paris at 5:15am but it could not arrive in Dhaka on schedule due to fogs. Shortly after it landed at the ZIA at 11:20am, the staff of Voyager Airlines, the company that conducts loading and unloading for Air France, had begun their work. The airline crew had asked them to finish the job within one and a half hours as they would go for the 12-hour rest that they usually take after working 12 hours at a stretch.
The artefacts, however, were put on the aircraft by that time. Meantime, Kuddus was told that the plane would take off at 00:00 hours. “Then he went to check whether the relics were taken aboard properly or not. There, he found one of the boxes missing,” said Ayub Quadri while talking to The Daily Star. The other boxes were already there.
“It all happened after our officials had handed over the artefacts to the Air France authorities,” said the adviser.
Dr Swapan Kumar Biswas, acting keeper of the National Museum, has filed a general diary with the Airport Police Station. Witnesses said divers were conducting search at the waterbody where the empty box was found. Meanwhile, Air France Cargo in a letter has notified the general manager of cargo terminal and director at the ZIA of the developments.
THE FRENCH EMBASSY STATEMENT
The embassy release said although the enquiries are ongoing, the possibility of a mere theft by petty criminals cannot be discounted. It said loose procedures geared towards garment exports have led to such valuable crates being left unattended on the tarmac of the airport in an area where neither the lending nor the borrowing institutions have any
control. If the consignment had left on time, and without the very professional attitude of the Bangladeshi courier, the disappearance would have been detected only in Paris, with the corresponding accusations been directed against the French Republic by a small but vocal group of persons.
The statement said France condemned such acts in the strongest term, saying that this mutually beneficial exhibition is the result of a long standing cooperation, it is routine, transparent, approved all heartedly by the government, endorsed by a very large majority of the leading citizens of this country and has been twice cleared by the Supreme Court. “It is time for the few opponents to this event to recognise they are a tiny minority and act accordingly. The French Embassy will continue to answer any questions regarding this exhibition,” the release added.
Several art connoisseurs, who had all along been protesting the government move to send 187 artefacts to Guimet National Museum for Asian Arts in France for an exhibition, yesterday demanded immediate arrest of those who were responsible for sending the artefacts.
They made the demand at a press conference at the Gallery Chitrok in response to the Vishnu statues’ going missing while under Air France’s custody.
The speakers said they had been expressing concern that once the age-old objects leave the country some of them might not be returned, and they have been proved right even before the artefacts had made it to Paris.
Describing the entire process as the biggest cultural disaster, they said it is a matter of great sorrow that the government did not pay heed to the civil society members and distinguished academics, artists, archaeologists and art connoisseurs before.
“Our suspicion has come true,” said Prof Serajul Islam Choudhury. “We still believe we are going to be cheated if we send those artefacts,” he added. Dr Shamsuzzaman Khan, former director general of Bangladesh National Museum, said the Guimet Museum had cheated the government of Turkey as it did not return the original tiles collected from the grave of an Ottoman emperor.
“As the government is sending the artefacts, at least half-a-million visitors of our museums would not get the chance to see them,” he said. “The government should have conducted the exhibition in the country rather than sending the precious works of art to Paris,” he added.
Architect Rabiul Hussain, archaeologists AKM Zakaria, Foyez Ahmed, artist Nesar Hossain, and Kamal Ahmed Euree were present at the press conference.
It is known that 187 pieces of antiquities including 128 life-size statues, terracotta and copper plaques, Prajna Paramita scriptures and coins from Pala, Sen, Gupta and Maurya dynasties, were selected for the exhibition.
Earlier, the High Court issued a two-month stay order on sending the artefacts to Paris. But later, as the Supreme Court vacated the stay, the government started the shipment procedure.
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