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National Gallery Shiva statue return 'should include gift of goodwill'

Two of Australia's leading public galleries should return millions of dollars of antiquities bought from disgraced New York dealer Subhash Kapoor that were likely to have been smuggled out of India.

Australia should also pay India to protect its cultural heritage in the wake of the looting scandal that has engulfed the Art Gallery of NSW and the National Gallery, art crime experts say.

The dancing Shiva statue in the National Gallery of Australia.
The dancing Shiva statue in the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: Jay Cronan

''Repairing relations would send a signal that Australia is not on the side of grave robbers or temple thieves but does have the best interests of India at heart,'' says Jason Felch, co-author of Chasing Aphrodite and a former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter.

The Attorney-General's Department is processing a request from India's government for the return of a dancing Shiva statue bought by Canberra's National Gallery for $US5 million ($5.4 million) in 2008 from Kapoor, who is on trial in India for looting and wanted in the US for masterminding large-scale antiquities smuggling.

Smuggler's loot: The Shiva statue.
Smuggler's loot: The Shiva statue. Photo: Jay Cronan

India has also demanded the return of a stone sculpture of the god Ardhanarishvara, bought for $300,000 by the Art Gallery of NSW from Kapoor's Art of the Past gallery in 2004. Works found to be stolen must be returned to their country of origin without compensation.

However, the National Gallery and Art Gallery of NSW still hold several artefacts collected from Art of the Past also suspected of having been looted. The National Gallery has spent at least $11 million on its 22 Kapoor items.

Sydney University criminologist Adjunct Professor Duncan Chappell says both galleries should voluntarily return any objects in their collections found to be stolen.

''I think the more rapidly this occurs the better,'' he says. ''They shouldn't have to wait for formal requests to be made if there is evidence these are objects of very dubious if not false provenance.''

Chappell's comments were backed up by University of Queensland academic Lyndel Prott, the former director of UNESCO's Division of Cultural Heritage.

''They should be checking their provenance research so that they can be sure they have not acquired stolen, clandestinely excavated or illegally exported objects,'' she says. ''If there are steps which indicate false or weak evidence of the status of the object, they should begin a dialogue with the owner or claimant state.''

But returning stolen artefacts is not enough, the experts say.

Prott says goodwill needs to be restored with the communities whose temples were looted. ''This could be part of an aid program involving the Australian government, which will also need to repair damage to its reputation for not actively applying its own Movable Cultural Heritage Act,'' she says.

In the US, the J.Paul Getty Museum not only returned 47 objects to Italy but provided assistance to protect items from earthquakes.

Felch says India needed to continue documenting the contents of temples, many of which were in disrepair. ''That is something the NGA or Art Gallery of NSW could contribute to financially,'' he says.

The Art Gallery of NSW declined to comment. The National Gallery says it is keen to explore opportunities for cultural exchange with India.