The Government of Bangladesh decided on 25 December to cancel its collaboration with the Parisian Musée Guimet after the theft of two statutes of Vishnu, 1500 years old in the International Freight Zone at the Dhaka Zia International Airport. The remaining 143 pieces will be returned to the Bangladeshi museums and the French authorities have been requested to return the other 42 pieces which were already sent to France on 1 December. Musée Guimet has cancelled the exhibition, Masterpieces from the Ganges Delta, Collections of Bangladesh Museums (Chefs-d’oeuvre du delta du Gange) which was to open on 9 January, after having been already once postponed from October 2007.
The stolen objects had been sent to the airport on Friday, with 12 other boxes of the National Museum of Bangladesh under police escort and a representative of the French embassy was at the airport to see them through customs. The next day they were to be transported in a plane of Air France when a Bangladeshi museum official discovered that the two pieces were missing. The airport was sealed off and an hour later the police found the packages empty lying nearby. Fifteen persons were put under arrest. The proposed exhibition had already led to many demonstrations in Bangladeshi where there was great fear that these national treasures once sent to France may never come back. Indeed, some Bangladeshi had written a letter to the French Government expressing their fears (see below) and the matter had gone twice to the Supreme Court which finally authorized the sending of the art objects.
In the course of the debate concerning the pending transport of their national treasures, it was realized that in fact many items from Bangladesh had been stolen which later on found their way to European and America museums. It was also alleged that a French scholar had borrowed an object from the country when he worked there and for some 49 years they have been requesting him to return it but with no success. It was also revealed that the items to be transported to Paris had not been properly identified and that the French list contained fewer items than the Bangladeshi list. Moreover, the 187 items had only been insured for 4 million euros! This is by far below the real market value of such items.
This fired speculation as to what would happen to the items once there were in Paris. The citizens of Bangladesh have demonstrated that they do care for their national treasures. One wonders how an African country in a similar situation would act. Would the Government be bold enough to say enough is enough and terminate its collaboration with the European museum? Would the old colonial master and servant complexes suddenly reappear with the one putting undue pressure on the other?
PROTESTS IN THE BANGLADESH
due partly to the article of Dr. Opoku published on Afrikanet.info 2. Letter To French Government & Citizens (December 1, 2007)
To The French Government & Citizens
Subject: Musee Guimet’s Non-Transparent Borrowing of Priceless Artifacts from Bangladesh
We the undersigned artists, archeologists, anthropologists, academics & other concerned citizens of Bangladesh are writing to express our strong objection to the manner in which Musee Guimet of Paris is taking invaluable artifacts from the national museum and four other leading museums of Bangladesh for a planned show entitled “Masterpieces of the Ganges delta”.
The Musee Guimet transported the artifacts even after widespread protests and a pending citizens’ lawsuit in the Bangladesh court. The manner in which the artifacts were transported, in a secret crating during early morning hours under police guard, added to the controversy. As news of the secret shipment leaked out, protesters gathered to form a human chain, and one protester was arrested. Finally, the first shipment of 10 crates of rare archaeological treasures was taken away, despite resistance, to be flown to Paris on December 1st on an Air France cargo plane. There is also a second shipment of 13 crates which is still pending.
While the exhibition, which has been billed as being of outstanding quality, and consists of the most prized objects from all the major museums of Bangladesh, it is not part of an exchange programme. The only items that the Bangladeshi people will receive in return are 20 exhibition catalogues. The lack of transparency surrounding the planned exhibition at Musee Guimet includes allegations of under-valuation of artifacts to the scale of hundreds of millions of dollars, lack of accession numbers on numerous objects, improper and incomplete cataloguing (e.g., referring to a set of coins as merely “coins”, with no numbers given), inconsistency between documents, missing descriptions, and descriptions that do not conform to international standards. The official insurance value of the entire collection (stated to be “189 pieces” by the French Embassy) has been set at 4 million Euros for the purposes of this exhibition loan.
Such a low insurance value for such a large collection, which dates back to the 4th century BC, has been described by an international archaeological expert as “financial fraud”. Even if this incorrect valuation had been completed by the Bangladesh authorities, one questions why an international museum would accept such a patently incorrect valuation.
Most worrying of all, the number of pieces identified in documentation created by the French photographer who catalogued the exhibit does not match with the contract signed by the French Ambassador. The number of artifacts in the contract in turn does not match with the official press releases from the Dhaka French Embassy. The controversy over the improper handling of the loan escalated over the last two months, resulting in a citizens’ lawsuit (still pending in court) and Bangladesh citizens’ group’s demanded that the Bangladesh government and French authorities allowed experts to inspect the items as per international standards.
The Bangladesh government asked the expert committee that is investigating the matter for time until January 15th, 2008 to respond to the committee’s queries.
Astonishingly, the Musee Guimet began shipment of the artifacts on 30th November, 2007 — a full 45 days before the expiry of the Bangladesh government’s self-imposed deadline. The Bangladesh government and French Embassy officials have, without informing either the committee or the media, taken the items out of the museum in the surprise shipment described earlier.
Musee Guimet is one of 18 museums that have jointly signed a separate Declaration on Importance and Value of Universal Museums, which opposes returning art works, especially ancient ones, to their original owners. This is in direct opposition to the UNESCO Convention on Stolen and Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (1995). This is particularly relevant since the convention was based on the high incidence of theft that was prevailing.
Bangladesh was identified as one of the three most vulnerable countries to such threats. Kwame Opoku’s recent statement “Musée Guimet in Paris which incidentally also holds thousands of stolen/illegal objects from China and the rest of Asia” has increased citizen debate about the lending.
The French embassy in Bangladesh has dismissed the protesters’ concern and said “local procedure in connection with the lending is an internal matter of the Bangladesh government” and there is “no risk in lending artifacts”.
The embassy also dismissed the protests as “eminent citizens with mixed qualifications, many far outside the field of archaeology, or with little experience of international exhibitions.” Guimet director Jean-Francois Jarriage and curator of the show Vincent Lefevre refused to meet with Shahidul Alam, a delegate from the protesters, who traveled to Paris for the purposes of securing an explanation. In his own statement, Jean-Francois Jarriage mentions that in the late 50’s he had worked in the department of archeology here. Incidentally, it was during that period that one of the most prized artefacts, a relic casket, of our country, was taken to France for restoration.
Mr. Zakaria, former secretary of the ministry of culture, who was then working in the archeology department has since campaigned for the return of the casket, but has failed to get a response from the French government over the last 49 years. The original show at Musée National des Arts Asiatiques – Guimet was billed as “Masterpieces of the Ganges delta. Collections from the Bangladesh Museums.” The original scheduled dates for the show were 24th October 2007 to 3rd May 2008.
The controversy has pushed back the date of the show, but as of today Musee Guimet remains adamant about showing the work without satisfying the demands of the concerned Bangladeshi citizens. While we were originally open to the idea of showing the work at Musee Guimet provided the transparency issues were addressed, the recent actions of the museum has removed any semblance of trust in the organisation, and we are no longer willing to loan our prized possessions to an organisation with such standards of behaviour. The incident, originally restricted to the issue of an exhibition now appears to have created a general distrust in the French government amongst the Bangladeshi public.
Signed A. K. M. Zakaria, archeologist and former secretary, ministry of cultural affairs, GOB.Nazimuddin Ahmed, archeologist, former director, department of archeology, GOB.Shamsuzzaman Khan, museologist, former director general, Bangladesh National Museum.Bulbon Osman, art historian, former director institute of fine arts, Dhaka University.Syed Jahangir, painter, former director, department of fine arts, Shilpakala Academy (Academy of Fine and Performing Arts), GOB.Borhanuddin Khan Jahangir, art historian, former pro vice chancellor, National University of Bangladesh.A. K. M. Shahnawaz, professor, department of archeology, Jahangirnagar University.