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National Gallery of Australia releases independent report into Asian art

An independent report has cast doubt on the origins of 22 pieces of Asian art from the National Gallery of Australia.

And 14 of those works were bought from the same disgraced New York art dealer.

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Doubt cast on origins of National Gallery art

Doubt has been cast on the provenance of 22 Asian artworks currently featured at the National Gallery of Australia. Vision courtesy ABC News 24.

The gallery has released the findings of a review into its Asian art collection, commissioned in the wake of the Dancing Shiva scandal.

The independent review was conducted by former High Court justice Susan Crennan and made public on February 17. 

The dancing Shiva
The dancing Shiva Photo: Jay Cronan

Ms Crennan found 22 objects from the gallery's Asian collection had "insufficient or questionable" documentation, including 14 pieces purchased from Art of the Past - a New York art gallery owned by dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is accused of smuggling more than $100 million of looted or stolen art from India.

The NGA was embroiled in the scandal after it was revealed that one of its showcase pieces, the $5.6 million Dancing Shiva, was purchased from Mr Kapoor. 


Then Prime Minister Tony Abbott returned the piece personally to India in 2014.  

Ms Crennan also found 12 items had satisfactory provenance but two pieces of art needed more research.

She looked at 36 internal audit reports on objects acquired by the NGA between 1968 and 2013, which included the Shiva and the Seated Buddha.

The Buddha is set to be returned to India this year after the gallery last year secured a refund of the purchase price from another New York-based dealer, Nancy Weiner Galleries. 

The report also looks at the international and Australian context surrounding the issue of provenance, noting that many galleries are facing similar issues within their collections.

Gallery director Gerard Vaughan said the process had been a "saga", but the report had clarified the legal and ethical framework for the gallery's collecting process.

"At the end of the day, there aren't too many surprises for us in this list," he said.

"Those 36 that we chose, we went out of our way to put in all of those recently acquired Indian sculptures that we felt could have problems about provenance. It's pretty much, I think, the sort of outcome we could have expected."

He said he hoped the outcome of the project meant it was unlikely such issues would arise again, if only because the gallery had no immediate plans to acquire any more antiquities, especially Asian ones.

"In fact, Sue Crennan does go out of her way to say that once we've got these safeguards in place that are stricter than we've had before, we shouldn't be frightened of buying antiquities because the charter of the NGA, the act that sets us up, says that we should be representing the cultures of many countries, especially south and south-east Asia," he said.

"But we've got to be very careful about it."

He said that even items that came onto the market with near perfect provenance would be sought after by any ethical collecting institution, making them harder to obtain.

The gallery briefed Indian high commissioner Navdeep Suri on the report this week.

In a statement, Mr Suri congratulated the gallery for its work.

"NGA's collaboration with senior officials of the Archaeological Survey of India in working to determine the provenance of the Seated Buddha has been truly exemplary.  In establishing a framework for restitution of a stolen property to the country of its origin, NGA has set a worthy example for other countries and institutions to follow," he said.

Mr Vaughan said the gallery's dealings with Indian authorities, including the Indian Ministry of Culture, the National Museum in New Delhi, the Archaeological Survey of India and the High Commissioner had been largely positive.

"They've said that the NGA's protocols for dealing with provenance problems are amongst the best they've seen and they would rather like to promote what we're doing as a model for the rest of the world," he said.

"I think what I've been struck by in our discussions with our Indian colleagues is they're being very pragmatic about this, and as a matter of general principle, putting to one side the matter of whether or not objects bought through Mr Kapoor were stolen, effectively…they like the fact that we have a strong collection of Indian sculptures in the NGA."

"It's all taking place in the context of a very good working relationship. None of these discussions are taking place in the context of negativity or anger about what's happened."

He said an outcome of the project was that the gallery would no longer enter into confidentiality agreement when acquiring objects.

"We're going to be absolutely transparent about everything, and you can't be transparent if you're signing confidentiality agreements," he said.

"We want to do the right thing, but we also want to continue to be able to show Asian cultures to the public through the collections of the NGA."