India and China pull all the stops to retrieve national treasures that are up for auction

India, China face auction catch 22 

India and China have simultaneously been making headlines for more than their optimistic outlook on the economy. Recently, both Asian behemoths have been pulling all the stops to retrieve national treasures that are up for auction. 

Nationalist sentiments are reigning at an all time high as Antiquorum Auctioneers in New York plans to put under the hammer the father of the nation – Mahatma Gandhi’s watch, sandals, a bowl, plate and characteristic rimmed glasses. Gandhi’s trust the Gujarat based Navajivan Trust has already filed a stay order in the Delhi High court hoping to stop the auction of prized national treasures. 

A similar case was filed against the auction of the bronze fountainheads of a rabbit and rat believed to be stolen from Beijing’s summer palace around the second opium war in 1860. Patriotic sentiments were roused when a Chinese art collector Cai Mingchao who won the bid for US$36 million, decided not to pay for the bronze fountainheads. Hailed as a collector and a patriot in China, Mingchao has been served with a formal notice to pay up within a month or forgo ownership of the statues by the owner – late designer Yves Saint Laurent’s partner Pierre Berge. 

The big debate fueling nationalist sentiments in Asia is the moral issue of whether these national treasures belong to India / China and therefore should not be paid for, or whether they can be sold back to the country as they now belong to the private collection of someone else. 

However both countries face a much larger problem. According to both Chinese and Indian law an individual is not allowed to import goods of historical importance into the country as it technically belongs to the state. So even if Christie just hands over the bronze rabbit and rat, Cai Mingchao could legally be stopped at Chinese customs for importing a national treasure. 

India’s import laws are currently framed similarly making importing anything of historical importance into the country frustratingly difficult. In 1972, the Indian parliament passed the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, which made exporting goods of historical importance near impossible. While the law was passed to protect Indian heritage from leaving Indian shores, the same conditions were implemented for the import of goods as well, rendering bringing back the Mahatma’s glasses wearyingly difficult even if Antiquorum Auctioneers just gives it to India.

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