Illegal Antiquities: Vishes Kothari

Guest post by VISHES KOTHARI

As a collector of Indian antiquities wanting to set up an antiquities dealership in the future, I had heard of the wholesale illegal export of Indian art treasures and antiquities out of India- sometimes through newspaper reports, but mostly through word of mouth. This summer I decided to explore this market further. Nothing could really have prepared me for what I was to see over the course of the next month spent between Delhi and Rajasthan.

Contrary to my imagination of the Delhi businesses operating in a very shady and dubious manner out of musty, hidden godowns in obscure corners of Old Delhi, and run by people with barely any idea of what they were handling, what I found instead was that almost all these businesses were located in localities which epitomize mainstream “cosmopolitan Delhi” and run by extremely wealthy upper middle class families. Connaught Place, Greater Kailash, Green Park, Sunder Nagar- these were just some of the places where I was able to locate an open sale of antiquities- happening not through dodgy godowns or via clandestine networks- but instead conducted out of posh showrooms and sold openly to anyone who cared to buy.

What was more shocking was the sheer number and array of items on sale I saw in Delhi and even Rajasthan. From Mughal era kalamkari textiles to miniature paintings, to carved marble screens- everything was on sale. In one such showroom, I saw hundreds of South Indian wooden chariot carvings and bronze statues for sale. On enquiring if these pieces were registered I was told- “Hamara to wholesale export ka kaam hai. Register karenge toh export kaise karenge?”. In another showroom I found hundreds of stunning textiles-including rare Kashmiri ones- all for sale. In yet another showroom I was shown nearly 200 miniature paintings – and the owner claimed he had more than 1000 in total. The selection offered varied greatly in quality and even more in period, and represented all the major schools of Indian painting- from 16th century illustrated folios from the Jain Kalpasutra, to 17th century Deccani ragamalas, to 18th century Bikaneri royal portraits to 19th century Kalighat paintings- anything could be had for the love of money.

The illegal export of Indian art treasures is not something new. Some of the world’s foremost collections- private and in museums, are known to have pieces which were published to be in post -1972 Indian collections.

One such famous museum is the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This painting in their collection  (, was published as part of a famous Indian collection in 1991- as demonstrated by illustration 22 of the book Splendours of Rajasthani Painting (  Another painting from the same collection published in the same book (illustration 19) is now in the Harvard Museum of Art (

A loquacious London dealer of antiquities reminisced of an occasion when her family was invited to a wedding in an Indian royal family, and once the wedding was over, many foreign guests were dispatched with a package which they were asked to not open  and simply hand over to an appointed agent in their home cities.  Another dealer  and good friend told me of the family behind one of the Delhi businesses- “they have probably brought more paintings out of India than Nadir Shah himself!”. Such anecdotal evidence allows one to only guess the real enormity of our loss.

In the 1970s and 80s, the focus seemed mostly on extremely high-end art treasures- those that would form the pride of place of royal collections. Now, with the Indian art market making phenomenal growth, things have changed. The demand has trickled down to lower price segments- and now anything, of any age has begun to command value. Hence the illegal trade which was earlier restricted to royal collections in the process of being disbursed, has now begun to impact anything which comes with a heritage tag. Thefts in locked up havelis of Rajasthan  are now routine, the land mafia is known to demolish old structures and sell off the architechtural salvage, originals in museums are replaced with cheap fakes, and the originals sold off- everything, and anything, is at risk.

So where really is the problem.

To begin with, the law. The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act,1972 requires that any object of over 100 years of age, and of historical interest be registered with the ASI. This registration also requires origin, price, age, details of buyer and seller to be submitted along with a photograph. The intention was of course to prevent art treasures from being smuggled- however – this law simply drove the trade underground.  The License Raj passed, but the requirement that antiquities traders obtain licenses never got amended.

In some way India today is in the exact opposite situation as China. At antiques fairs and auctions round the world, excited Chinese buyers can be found examining and buying their heritage to take back to their country, and being provided incentives by their government for this. From jades which have sold for record shattering prices to the finest Imperial ceramics- most of the buyers have been the Chinese themselves. The heating up of the Chinese market has been spearheaded by the Chinese.

On the other hand I found India to be the worst place to buy or collect Indian antiquities. In London I saw a huge network involved with the art world- dealers, scholars, collectors and curators. These networks no longer exist in India. The Indian art market is vibrant in the West- London, Paris and New York are centres where the rarest Indian works of art can be found at auction houses and in art galleries. Coupled with this is the dead antiquities trade in India. Thus we have a situation which almost encourages the smuggling of art treasures abroad.

The question is what is the problem if Indian art treasures find their way out of the country? The Japanese for example regard their national treasures as cultural ambassadors and have very often  issued official permits to ship important artifacts abroad.

The answer lies in the spuriousness of this trade. The present law was hastily put in place after  the privy purses of the royal estates were abolished- largely to stop them from selling their art treasures abroad- however it seems to have done an equal disservice to those selling them within country.  More importantly, not only does this law come down heavily on those who wish to sell antiquities, this law almost frowns on collecting. This depite world over scholars and academics realizing that collecting is not antithetical to preservation- but instead aids it.

One is reminded of the law with regard to heritage structures. So suffocating is the bureaucracy that the owners of these properties have to encounter, that instead of being encouraged to preserve these structures, they are enouraged to abandon them altogether! In a similar way, so daunting is the bureaucracy around the antiquities trade that the present law has acted as a cancer on collecting and legal trade. Respectable people who would have liked to legally put together collections shunned this sector altogether- and the market fell underground into the hands of unscrupulous dalaals and thieves and our Delhi businessmen, and what could have been a controlled trade has now gone completely out of control or vigilance.

Suresh Neotia, the owner of one of the world’s topmost private collections of Indian art today, writes:

“Art and art scholarship depend on patronage and a lively market place. It requires a network of collectors, dealers and scholars to authenticate individual pieces, guide collectors and educate the public. The Act destroyed this network, the complexities of registration and possibility of prosecution deterring collectors. No collection of any significance has been formed since 1972, in sharp contrast to the numerous collections between 1947 and 1972. The licensing of dealers and the requirement of a detailed inventory for each object drove the trade underground. I am told there are only two dealers who ever took a licence.”  When I enquired with the ASI about the time duration it would take to issue a dealer license, they said one year!

However,  this law only mirrors a larger indifference in our country, and society, towards its own heritage. How else could one explain the present situation? Apathy of the state only mirrors the apathy of our society. I sometimes can’t help but think it is best these art treasures have left our country- their best alternative here would be to die a slow death in a dusty and humid government museum. Horror tales of what people have done to heritage in their private hands would be enough to fill a book. Horror tales of experiences of scholars and collectors at our museums would fill another.

A society such as ours, which looses track of where it came from in such a complete manner is the one which becomes prone to dangerous manipulations of its own historical narratives. Perhaps in no other age has this been a greater worry.

6 thoughts on “Illegal Antiquities: Vishes Kothari”

  1. Excellent post, and it was a long time in coming.

    A. About the Chinese buying art abroad and bring it back home was a bit too much on the rougher side. I feel that there are Indians who buys art and bring it back home. e.g. Vijay mallya as for the rest. Avoiding limelight is of the prime importance. Hats off on a very important piece.


    1. Thank you MajorSri for appreciating.

      It’s true some high-profile Indian collections are being put together- but only by business tycoons and mining magnates. And they are anything but out of the limelight. The Chinese market is booming not only at the high end, even the urban prosperous section are eagerly visiting auctions, exhibitions and galleries in the West to take their heritage back. The market has boomed for everything ranging from a few thousands to several lakhs. In the Indian case, the Indian antiquities market has boomed because of interest in the West primarily.

      All the major world auction houses are making a beeline to set-up in China and hold auctions there. However in India, famous auction houses were infamously hounded out of the country when they tried to set-up here in the 90s. Whats more, Vijay Mallya is also facing immense bureaucracy centred around Tipu’s sword.


  2. I enjoyed reading your article, really states the sad affairs of Indian treasure. We need more Vijaya Mallayas to rescue our heritage.


  3. If you look at the state of the National Museum and the museum in Mathura – where there are priceless Kushana artifacts and unbelievably great sculptures of Buddha languishing in dusty corridors, perhaps the antiquities are better off in foreign collections. Bhandarkar institute in Pune has priceless manuscripts growing mold in the weather there. They have not taken up offers to digitize and preserve them. Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel medal was stolen and has not been recovered.
    The Global Heritage Foundation has been trying to establish an Indus valley Museum in India for over five years with such inertia from the authorities and political infighting among the Indian collaborators (ASI, University, local authorities) that GHF has almost given up in disgust. Generally ASI is a joke … look at the state of Dholavira today.
    The Chinese have given the go ahead to build 100 new museums to house the artifacts of the corresponding provinces and local areas. Most museums in India were started by the British and have languished ever since. Our kleptocrats and “businessmen” are interested in lining their pockets by selling antiquities and not preserving cultural and artistic heritage. Every country gets the society it deserves and that is especially true of current day India. Perhaps somebody can explain what the Ambanis, Premjis, Mittals et al have done in this area. The only exception are the Tatas.


    1. Dear Praja,

      I do agree with a lot of what you say. Over time I have come to realize the value in the trade in antiquities- even if done illegally, as it is at least helping these art treasures find their way into the hands of discerning collectors. ( However we must bear in mind that some of these art treasures come from sabotage and theft).

      Moreover I must admit that very few of India’s business tycoons have turned to collecting Indian art treasures. While modern and contemporary art has become a status symbol, no one wants to meddle with Indian antiquities. The few notable private collectors who come to mind today are the Birlas (who have now stopped collecting), Shiv Nadar, Suresh Neotia and Jagdish Mittal (as far as I’m aware the Tatas among these collectors).

      However before pouncing on the rich for dereliction of their duty, we must examine the realities. The law is so draconian that most people are scared of entering this sector. Vijay Mallya has been subject to intense bureaucracy over Tipu Sultan’s sword. Most private collectors have been troubled/questioned/raided by the authorities at one time or the other. The Chinese government has incentivized collection of objects of significance to Chinese heritage. Here in India, leave alone incentive, the government has made sure there are clear disincentives to get into this sector- both from the dealing and collecting point of view. Other than one registered dealership in Mumbai, all of the world’s major Indian art galleries are abroad. Hence, how can we expect anyone to get into collecting Indian antiquities?
      Thus before there is a change in the law, there is a great deal of doubt there will be a change in situation. That is as far as private collections go.

      About State attitude towards heritage and its conservation, that is a different subject altogether, and perhaps the topic of my next article!



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