An allegedly stolen bronze has greatly tarnished the reputation of Australia’s National Gallery. By Joyce Morgan.

Is the NGA’s ’looted’ Shiva a statue of naivety?

The statue of Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja), which was acquired by the NGA in 2008 and remains on display despite the current controversy.
Credit: Courtesy NGA

Despite its name, the New York address on Grand Central Parkway is neither grand nor verdant. Rather, it is among a row of shabby whitewashed terraces with cracked concrete driveways and overflowing garbage bins.

Apparently, it was in this humble dwelling that the widow of a Sudanese diplomat and owner of an ancient treasure lived. But why a one-metre bronze of the Indian god Shiva, encircled by a ring of fire, was in the possession of  a woman of such modest circumstances does not appear to have troubled the National Gallery of Australia when it ran provenance checks before buying the 900-year-old statue in 2008.

Raj Mehgoub, of Grand Central Parkway, allegedly sold her late husband’s antiquity to New York art dealer and accused criminal mastermind Subhash Kapoor. The Madison Avenue dealer then sold it to the NGA in 2008 for $5.1 million, making it one of the most expensive works in the Canberra gallery’s collection.

To help fund the purchase, the gallery sold a smaller Shiva that lacked the classic ring of fire. Now the flaming Shiva – revealed as stolen from a temple in India – has engulfed the gallery in an international controversy that threatens the directorship of Ron Radford.

The little receipt of sale to Kapoor, allegedly signed by Raj Mehgoub, is Exhibit C in a New York court. It was among the documents the NGA relied on when it considered the ownership history of the Shiva, but it now forms part of a case that raises questions about museum ethics and the role of art museums in the global trafficking of stolen antiquities.

The gallery says it did rigorous checks before acquiring the statue. It also obtained a money-back guarantee from Subhash Kapoor. The gallery demands this with high-value purchases, although experts say this is not standard art museum practice.

 But no one from the gallery tried to contact the mysterious widow who purportedly moved to New York from an equally humble residence in Pennsylvania in 2003. NGA director Ron Radford has said only that his staff checked to see if the Pennsylvania address was real. 

“I believe they did Google Earth to see it was not a made-up address and the person existed,’’ he told ABC TV earlier this month, breaking his 18-month silence.

The controversy over the Shiva statue is the biggest test of Radford’s 10-year directorship of the nation’s flagship gallery. His contract ends in September, but there is mounting pressure on him to resign. Radford declined to be interviewed by The Saturday Paper. The chairman of the NGA’s council, Allan Myers, QC, did not return phone calls.

The statue of Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja) is at the centre of international legal action in the United States and India. The NGA has taken the unprecedented step of suing Kapoor in the New York courts. This follows the guilty plea in December by Kapoor’s former gallery manager, Aaron Freedman, to six counts relating to trafficking in stolen art.

Freedman acknowledged he had faked provenance documents, including those for the Shiva statue, which he admitted was stolen from the Sivan Temple in Tamil Nadu’s Ariyalur district in 2006 or 2007. Despite Freedman’s confession – and the NGA’s lawsuit against Kapoor – Radford is not yet convinced the statue was looted.

 Meanwhile Kapoor, described by US investigators as one of the world’s most prolific antiquities smugglers, is in an Indian prison awaiting trial, accused of masterminding the looting of $100 million of antiquities. He will return to court in India on March 21.

The Chola dynasty statue, which depicts the Hindu god squashing underfoot the demon of darkness and ignorance, came to international attention in 2012 when it was found to resemble one stolen a few years earlier from a Tamil Nadu temple. It is one of 21 works the NGA bought from Kapoor between 2002 and 2011 for a total of $11 million. The gallery has refused to release provenance papers for these, citing commercial-in-confidence issues.

The Canberra gallery, along with many other major international museums, has shown a startling lack of curiosity about the ownership history of works they were buying from Kapoor, according to LA Times investigative reporter Jason Felch, whose Chasing Aphrodite website has exposed illegal trafficking of antiquities.

“These were not difficult stories to puncture,’’ he says. “It was not hard to Google those supposed collectors and see they lived in run-down houses in communities where very, very valuable Indian art is generally not found … That should have been a red flag.’’

Simple checks and questions could have revealed the provenance provided by Kapoor was suspect, Felch argues.

“There’s no evidence they asked those questions, which in my mind raises serious questions,’’ he says.

The NGA’s dealings with Kapoor pre-date Radford’s arrival. The previous director, Dr Brian Kennedy, bought two works from Kapoor. But under Radford’s direction, the number of Indian works in the national collection increased dramatically. Radford set the acquisition of Asian art as a priority, and went on a spending spree. “We didn’t think we’d be able to buy this many fantastic things in such a short time,’’ Radford said in 2005. “Things were quickly added as word got out.”

Word of a different kind was also filtering out at that time. In Sydney, the then director of the Art Gallery of NSW, Edmund Capon, heard via London sources that Kapoor was not to be trusted. The Sydney gallery, which had by then bought six objects from Kapoor, ceased dealing with him. Capon says he does not recall passing this intelligence to Radford and was not aware the Canberra director was buying from Kapoor.

“There’s no doubt there’s a lesson for all,’’ says Capon. “It makes you realise you have got to be careful … when I was starting in the Asian art world in the late ’60s, this wasn’t such an issue.”

That changed in 1970 when a UNESCO treaty, to which Australia is a signatory, was developed to prevent the trade in stolen antiquities. Since then, unless an artefact was outside its country of origin before 1970, or legally exported after, it should be regarded as illicit. Hence the importance of provenance. 

Works found to be stolen must be returned to their country of origin without compensation. India has not so far made a claim for the Shiva’s return.

A scandal that engulfed the Getty Museum in Los Angeles nearly a decade ago focused attention on antiquities looted from Greece and Italy, but there has been less attention on Asian antiquities, according to looting expert Dr Neil Brodie, of the Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research.

“It is as though Asian antiquities live in a different universe, as though lower standards apply,’’ he says. “But this [Kapoor case] is like Getty part 2.” 

Brodie suggests a new model for galleries. He says that instead of buying antiquities, institutions should borrow works from other countries. Such an approach avoids the risk of entanglement with the black market, he argues.

The man who cleaned up the Getty, its former director Dr Michael Brand, now director of the Art Gallery of NSW, says long-term loans have merit and are an area the gallery is exploring. 

“What we need are indefinite loans, where a country says, ‘We’ve got five Shiva Natarajas in storage, we’d be happy for Australia to have one of those’,’’ Brand says.

Clear acquisition policies are essential, Brand says. He introduced a new policy at the Art Gallery of NSW in December 2012.

“The big picture is how we preserve and share cultural heritage. It is a great thing that people want to see other people’s culture. But that has to be treated carefully,” the director says.

Meanwhile, criticism of the National Gallery’s handling of the Shiva case is increasing. University of Sydney law professor Duncan Chappell, an art crime expert, questions the gallery’s priorities. With Kapoor in jail, the gallery is unlikely to get its money back. The gallery should instead focus its attention on tightening its acquisitions policy and returning any stolen items, he says.

“There’s no doubt they have been naive, they have not done their homework. This is the top gallery in the country, they should be setting the precedent,’’ he says. “Museums have an onus to ensure that they have rigorous and well-thought-out acquisitions policies and they don’t turn a blind eye to questionable practices.’’

Queensland University’s Lyndel Prott, a former Paris-based director of UNESCO’S Cultural Heritage Division, has criticised the gallery’s lack of transparency.

“The reluctance of the National Gallery is perhaps not in Australia’s interest,’’ she says. “[The gallery] seems unwilling to engage publicly on the circumstances of this purchase and that suggests that it is unwilling to face up to the issues.”

It could be some time before a New York court hears the NGA’s case. The matter is unlikely to go ahead before Kapoor’s criminal case in India ends, and that could take years. But if and when it gets its day in court, the gallery will not be able to avoid facing these issues.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 15, 2014 as "Statue of naivety?".

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Joyce Morgan is a Sydney-based arts journalist. She is writing a biography of artist Martin Sharp.