Diplomatic pouch wide open to smuggling in India

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The diplomatic bag brigade is involved in a multimillion-dollar antique smuggling racket, the Indian Express has alleged. Officials estimate that during the past 10 years art pieces alone worth over

A report in the highly respected Indian Express, which specializes in investigative reporting, has charged that several senior Western diplomats have perfected the lucrative art of buying low-priced antiques and then selling them in Britain, West Germany, and the United States.

An example is given here of a bronze statue of a Hindu god, bought for a mere

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In recent months, police have reported the theft from temples of as many as 500 stone and bronze idols, some of them up to 1,000 years old. And the police suspect that these artifacts have already found their way into the European markets.

A senior archaelogical official said: "This plunder of India's cultural wealth has been going on ever since the British raj ended. We have passed an act which compels owners of antiquities to register them. Nothing can be sent out of the country unless it is approved by the Department of Archaeology and the Customs authorities. But this, perhaps, applies only to tourists and other visitors."

Officials here do not say so plainly but they believe that the diplomatic bag , which is immune from search, is being used extensively by art smugglers.

Says one expert: "It is more than investment.Some diplomats find it gives them great aesthetic pleasure to have a bronze Buddha installed in the living room. This is, after all, a human failing."

A reporter who investigated the art smuggling world says that the current trend in the antique markets of London, Zurich, Hamburg, and New York favors stone sculptures from the Kushan and Gupta periods, Mogul miniatures and the early paintings of the 17th century, as well as bronze statues from the temples in Kashmir.

The reporter has said that diplomats and even ambassadors leave behind their successors with their techniques of sending out art pieces to Europe. This has become big business.

Ironically, the Art Treasures Act of 1973 helps them in this game. For, it requires all antiquity dealers to register pieces over 100 years old. This is feared by most dealers, since it prevents them from exporting pieces out of India.

The diplomats find it easy enough to buy such items. Embassies in New Delhi are frequently visited by antique dealers who are able to sell quite a bit of their merchandise.

One antique dealer has been quoted as saying that one of the Western ambassadors left with a fortune earned through the sale of antiques which flood the international art market.

Another envoy bought more than 300 bronze figurines from a dealer and exported them to Europe. Another ambassador was said to have engaged most of his staff in antique buying and selling.

Protocol officials in New Delhi are uncertain what they can do to halt this looting. One official said privately: "We hope good sense will prevail in the Western embassies, [since] few Asian diplomats indulge in this kind of game."

But a Western ambassador told me: "This is all part of a smear campaign. Of course, there are art experts among diplomats who would buy an interesting antique piece. But any large-scale smuggling in art objects and antiquities is a mere piece of imaginative reporting."

He went on to say that although he couldn't be sure everyone was observing the diplomatic corps code, diplomats are all bound by a UNESCO convention forbidding removal of third-world art treasures to the West.

India's Central Bureau of Investigation is meanwhile building a rogues' gallery containing records and photographs of art smugglers.

The government's biggest victory was when a Los Angeles financier and art collector, Norton Simon, returned a 10th-century statue on Nataraj which he had purchased for $1 million. The 44-inch bronze statue had been stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu in southern India. Similarly, an 11th-century bronze statue of the Hindu god Vishnu has been returned from the US. It was stolen from the Calcutta Museum in 1965 and bought by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which had bought it from an American dealer for $50,000. another notable thefts include 100 sandstone figures worth several million dollars from the Love Temple of Khajuraho in the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India.

Since 1970, more than 5,000 idols of Hindu gods and goddesses, some dating back to the 10th century, have been missing. The police were able to recover only about 500 of them.

In 1973 the Indian government launched a worldwide hunt to unearth thousands of priceless ancient pieces of Hindu sculpture missing from hundreds of Indian temples and monuments.

In most cases, the Indian government makes strong representations to the host government and to UNESCO to recover these stolen pieces.

And computers are now being put to work on making a complete record of art burglaries, techniques used by burglars, and a detailed catalog of art objects still missing.

New Delhi had also appealed to Interpol headquarters in Paris to keep an eye on idollifters. It has also launched a drive telling the public through posters and films to look out for art thieves and report missing idols.

But officials admit that it is hard to beat the dealers. Sometimes, they use fake antiques and decoys to smuggle out genuine pieces.

A common method is to order a consignment of fakes. An expert faker produces a dozen bronze Buddhas that are exact replicas of 4th-century pieces. Permission is obtained to export the newly fashioned bronzes, but by clever maneuvering one genui ne piece is substituted for one of the fakes.

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