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Australia repatriates artefacts acquired from jailed dealer, India calls it gesture of friendship

'The child-saint Sambandar' (12th century) is one of the 14 historical artefacts returned to India by Australia. Source: Supplied by National Gallery of Australia

The National Gallery of Australia has announced the repatriation of 14 artefacts to India that it had acquired from an art dealer currently in an Indian jail. Some of them date back to as early as the 10th century, and include sculptures like 'The Dancing child-saint Sambandar' from the Chola dynasty, 'Lakshmi-Vishnu' and 'Durga Mahisasuramardini'.

The National Gallery of Australia has announced the repatriation of 14 artefacts of high historical value in its possession to India. Of these, 13 were acquired from an Indian art dealer currently in jail.

Some of these artefacts date back to the 10th century and include sculptures like The Dancing child-saint Sambandar from the Chola dynasty, Lakshmi-Vishnu and Durga Mahisasuramardini.


Highlights:

  • Australia to repatriate 14 historical artefacts to India
  • Sculptures were bought between 1989 and 2010; 13 from an Indian dealer currently in jail
  • 'Demonstrates our commitment to ethical management of collections': National Gallery of Australia

Lakshmi Narayana (10-11th century)
Lakshmi Narayana (10-11th century)
Supplied by National Gallery of Australia

These artefacts include six bronze or stone sculptures, a brass processional standard, a painted scroll and six portraits.

Dr Chaitanya Sambrani, Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Art History and Art Theory at the Australian National University, said the sculptures especially are precious and come from various locations in India.

“They were created across eight or nine centuries. Most of these objects correspond to the Hindu, Jain and Muslim artistic traditions, while a small number are portraits of a secular nature,” Dr Sambrani told SBS Hindi.

“The objects are extremely significant from a variety of perspectives. The sculptural works listed here, including the Chola bronzes and stone sculptures from Rajasthan and Gujarat, correspond to highly regarded periods or styles that we consider part of classical art history in India," he added.  

Dr Chaitanya Sambrani is a senior lecturer at the Australian National University.
Dr Chaitanya Sambrani is a senior lecturer at the Australian National University.
Supplied by Dr Chaitanya Sambrani

A media release from the gallery stated that the decision to return the artworks is the culmination of years of research, due diligence and an evolving framework for decision-making that includes both legal principles and ethical considerations.

This move follows two independent reviews conducted by former High Court Justice Susan Crennan.

The gallery also stated that they have removed three more sculptures from their collection which were sourced from the jailed Indian art dealer and will repatriate them after identifying their source of origin.

It added they had returned some artefacts in 2014, 2016 and 2019 and no longer hold any work acquired through that dealer. 

Processional standard (alam) 1851
Processional standard (alam) 1851
Supplied by National Gallery of Australia

Durga Mahisasuramardini
Durga Mahisasuramardini (12-13th century)
Supplied by National Gallery of Australia

Dr Sambrani said other works are also significant in their own way. 

“The alam from Hyderabad is an exquisite piece of metalwork and has enormous sacred and emotional significance in Muharram processions. This also demonstrates the ongoing pluralism of Indian traditions and links Indian art and aesthetics with the West Asian and Middle-Eastern domains,” he added.

“The portraits, some of which are hand-painted, are very important markers of modernity and the dynamic transformations in visual regimes occurring in resonance with the introduction of new economic and technological modes in the 19th and 20th centuries,” Dr Sambrani added. 

Seated Jina (11-12th century)
Seated Jina (11-12th century)
National Gallery of Australia

India’s High Commissioner to Australia, Manpreet Vohra, welcomed the announcement.

“The Government of India is grateful for this extraordinary act of goodwill and gesture of friendship from Australia.

“These are outstanding pieces: their return will be extremely well-received by the Government and people of India,” Mr Vohra was quoted in a media release from the gallery. 

The gallery’s director Nick Mitzevich said these actions demonstrate their commitment to being a leader in the ethical management of collections. 

“This is the right thing to do; it's culturally responsible and the result of collaboration between Australia and India. We are grateful to the Indian government for their support and are pleased we can now return these culturally significant objects,” Mr Mitzevich said in a media release.

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