How The Museums Of Yale And Harvard House Stolen, Ill-Gotten Indian Artefacts

How The Museums Of Yale And Harvard House Stolen, Ill-Gotten Indian Artefacts

by S Vijay Kumar - Monday, August 30, 2021 05:28 PM IST
How The Museums Of Yale And Harvard House Stolen, Ill-Gotten Indian Artefacts
12th–13th century Arch (Parikara) (Image: Yale Art Gallery)
  • Here are some questions The India Pride Project — a group that works to recover stolen Indian art and heritage — has for 'renowned' American universities like Yale and Harvard.

Earlier this month, we at the India Pride Project (an online volunteer group determined to bring back priceless artefacts smuggled out of India) exposed how an American body called the ‘Rubin-Ladd Foundation’ delivers Indian artefacts stolen by the notorious art smuggler Shubash Kapoor to renowned universities and museums across the world.

The instance of the Yale University Museum acquiring, and subsequently displaying, a stolen Kubera idol from Uttar Pradesh through this route was illustrated in our last article.

In continuation of the same expose, we now ask the Yale Museum management some crucial questions.

One, the gallery does acknowledge through a note that this idol is published in an archaeological survey of the district of Sonbhadra in Robertsganj Tehsil, in Pragdhara (1994–1995), the Uttar Pradesh State archaeological journal. It also claims that research is ongoing to determine the origins of the Kubera including its inclusion within the archaeological survey.

Since when has the gallery’s management been aware of contentious origins of the idol? More specifically, which year?

How The Museums Of Yale And Harvard House Stolen, Ill-Gotten Indian Artefacts

Two, the provenance papers of the idol with Yale University reveal that one Ferruccio Abbiati, Turin, Italy, possessed the idol in about 1995; he then sold the idol to Carlton Rochell of the Asian Art Gallery, New York, in 2002, who then sold it to the Rubin-Ladd Foundation in March 2003.

What provenance paperwork did the dealer Carlton Rochell supply for this artefact? Given that the dealership is still active, has the Yale University Art Gallery reached out to either the foundation or the dealer for provenance paperwork?

Further, The Yale Museum Art gallery has listed several artefacts which they have directly purchased from Art Of Past, Subhash Kapoor’s now defunct gallery.

How The Museums Of Yale And Harvard House Stolen, Ill-Gotten Indian Artefacts

One such artefact is a marble arch (Parikara). Its provenance follows Subash Kapoor’s Art of the Past to Rubin Ladd Foundation to the university route.

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) announced early this month that they were returning a similar artefact since that was sold to them by Art of Past ( Subhash Kapoor) with fake provenance papers. The NGA clearly lists the origin of its marble arch as Mount Abu, Rajasthan.

Unfortunately, as in Yale’s case, the marble arch is not an acquisition but a gift to the gallery from the foundation; there is no valid provenance paper work nor even a purported value.

However, surely, Yale's acquisition committee could have sought these for their own due diligence — if not at the time of acquisition, at least after the indictment of Kapoor.

We can now reveal the photos of the arch Subash Kapoor’s suppliers sent to him.

How The Museums Of Yale And Harvard House Stolen, Ill-Gotten Indian Artefacts

The back of these photos contain clear information about the original location of the arches — Mount Abu, Rajasthan.

Same as the arch returned by the NGA.

How The Museums Of Yale And Harvard House Stolen, Ill-Gotten Indian Artefacts

The results of our photo forensic analysis shows 56 clear markers that the arch taken by Subash Kapoor’s suppliers match the current exhibit at Yale.

However, Yale is not alone.

Harvard Art Museums

We now present to you Harvard University’s ties with the tainted loot.

How The Museums Of Yale And Harvard House Stolen, Ill-Gotten Indian Artefacts

This sandalwood casket with ivory fittings is today housed in one of Harvard’s Art Museums — the Arthur M. Sackler Museum as object number 2009.75.

Dated to the second half of the 19th century, the museum records the origins to be from Mysore/Karnataka region.

The provenance is as follows:

The donor, Robert Walzer, purchased the casket a few years back from the dealer Subhash Kapoor, in his gallery Art of the Past (Madison Avenue, New York City). It was one of several carved sandalwood objects that he purchased at the same time. Two of the objects from the group (a box and an incomplete book cover) were subsequently donated to LACMA. Subhash Kapoor reported at the time that he had acquired them at an antiques street fair in London a few years earlier. The London seller stated that he had bought the box from a person who came to him to sell it, and the dealer assumed it was an estate piece.

After reading the above, it becomes quite clear that there exists no paperwork nor clear sale/acquisition date for any of the stated transactions involving the transfer of the casket.

Moreover, the reference to the donation to LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) does not feature on the museum's official site.

No object references can be found. So far, our Google searches for gifts from Robert Walzer to the LACMA present the result — “Sc India 8834 Madhya Pradesh? 10th C A Solar Deity? Sandstone H. 45.7 CM Gift of Ann and Robert Walzer II/42 LACMA M.86.347 ACSAA Slide (C)AAAUM”.

Though the result seems to concern another artefact, we shall, of course, pursue the lead.

Thus, an artefact which is clearly over a 100 years old (therefore, legally an antiquity) is today housed in one of America's top universities without clear proof of legitimate export even prior to the 1970 UNESCO Convention based on which India has essentially banned the export of antiquities.

Description of the artefacts concerning acquisition and rights reveals the operative portion of the expose — the credit line is stated to be Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Gift of Rubin-Ladd Foundation under the bequest of Ester R. Portnow.

Gifts and acquisitions from this American foundation are usually courtesy purchases made by the same from the now jailed and infamous art smuggler, Subash Kapoor.

However, several top universities and museums in America and around the world continue to house and display such ill-gotten antiquities despite knowledge of the dubious their provenance.

Their ‘innocent purchases’ and lack of due diligence has helped establish a flourishing illicit art market.

In the next part of this expose, the India Pride Project shall soon be revealing how the loot from the ancient Chandraketugarh site in West Bengal has found its place under glass panes of such renowned galleries.

Also Read: How An American Foundation Distributes Stolen Indian Art To The Likes Of Yale University

Vijay is a shipping professional working in Singapore. He is an avid heritage enthusiast and runs poetryinstone, a blog aimed at promoting awareness of Indian art.
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