Head of a man, at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Head of a man, at the National Gallery of Victoria. Photo: Supplied

The National Gallery of Australia's controversial dancing Shiva statue is now in the possession of the federal government and several suspect Indian statues have been removed from the floor of the Art Gallery of the NSW. But there may yet be more skeletons in the closets of our most venerable institutions. The challenge is to find them.

Robyn Sloggett, director of University of Melbourne's Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, believes a national audit of our museums' acquisition practices and holdings is due. It could prove expensive and inconvenient, as well as labour and resource-intensive, but it will be money well spent to avoid potential future costs and save a whole lot of face.

Since the story of the NGA's dancing Shiva broke wide on ABC's Four Corners in March, Sloggett has hit out hard against the "lack of due diligence'' that allowed the National Gallery, along with the AGNSW, to purchase works from now-disgraced antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor.  

Scene from the life of the Buddha, at the National Gallery of Australia.

Scene from the life of the Buddha, at the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: Supplied

"The framework [for an audit] is there,'' says Sloggett, pointing to the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects and a 1970 UNESCO convention prohibiting the illicit trafficking of cultural material, both of which Australia has signed. "It shouldn't be up to the press to find the issues. Has Western Australia got anything? We don't know. There was nothing said about it. Was everything at the National Gallery purchased from [Kapoor] fully assessed? If it was, it's been a silent process.''

According to Sloggett, an audit would first look into our museums' current acquisition processes – "What are the provenance checks? Who does them? How rigorous are they? Do they fit within a standard?'' – before assessing the provenance information for items already in the institutions' collection. "Directors are going out for public money and private money for acquisitions: being able to show due process seems a pretty big part of arguing that,'' says Sloggett. "Is it going to be more expensive to just wait 'til a problem comes up? It is going to be expensive to fail as publicly as the NGA and the AGNSW did?''

The public failures to which Sloggett refers are, of course, the NGA and AGNSW's purchases from Kapoor, the owner of the Art of the Past gallery on New York's Madison Avenue who is currently on trial in India for trafficking idols stolen from Indian temples at his request. The NGA purchased 22 artworks from Kapoor's Art of the Past between 2002 and 2011, including photographs, paintings and 15 sculptures from south and south-east Asia. Among them was the Shiva as Lord of the Dance statue from the 11th or 12 century that Four Corners showed had been stolen from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu. The gallery paid $5 million for the piece. The AGNSW acquired six Indian works from Art of the Past between 1994 and 2004, including a stone sculpture of the god Ardhanarishvara, also from Tamil Nadu. 

The divine couple Lakshmi and Vishnu, at the National Gallery of Australia.

The divine couple Lakshmi and Vishnu, at the National Gallery of Australia. Photo: Supplied

While the NGA showed signs it would initially resist a call from the Indian government for the return of the Shiva, along with the AGNW's Ardhanarishvara, neither gallery ultimately contested the call and both statues are now in the possession of Attorney-General George Brandis's office while their fate is decided. AGNSW director Michael Brand said the Gallery had immediately provided details of six works it had acquired from Kapoor’s and was committed to ensuring strict due diligence with regard to provenance when acquiring works of art for its collection.

The episode was embarrassing for the institutions involved: Shiva made international headlines and Brandis publicly scolded the NGA for an "incautious'' decision to buy the prized piece. "The due diligence standards of the NGA – which are very high, in fact are the world's best practice – were not, in my view, sufficiently met,'' he told Four Corners. The NGA was also roundly criticised for its handling of the scandal, firstly for insisting that it would wait for Kapoor's legal proceedings to play out before acting on India's request for repatriation, despite damning evidence. In contrast, the National Gallery of Victoria – whichfaced arequest for restitution of the painting Head of a man to the legal heir of its former owner, who had sold the work under duress from the Nazi regime – has been praised for reviewing the evidence and promptly making the decision to restitute the work in May. 

Patrick Greene, chief executive of Museum Victoria and chairman of the Council of Australasian Museum Directors (CAMD), says there is "a lot to commend'' in the call for an audit of acquisition policies. Greene says that CAMD and several museums and organisations are consulting with the federal Ministry for the Arts over an update to the government's due diligence guidelines for acquisitions. He says the illicit trade is "a despicable trade, which at its roots, destroys the culture of countries from which material has been ripped and looted'', and museum directors need to be front-footed in stamping it out. Greene says the ministry's current guidelines can be strengthened through the consultation. "They won't be obligatory, but nonetheless, when the final version emerges there will be a real opportunity for organisations such as CAMD to promulgate them to our members, with a strong expectation that these will form the bases of new practices," he says.

Varaha rescuing the earth goddess, Bhudevi, at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Varaha rescuing the earth goddess, Bhudevi, at the Art Gallery of NSW. Photo: Supplied

Some galleries say they would welcome an audit. A spokesperson for the Art Gallery of Western Australia, for example, said they had "investigated particular areas where the provenance of artworks in the collection might be a concern, for example artworks potentially looted during World War II". To date no provenance problems have been identified and we would be comfortable undertaking an audit,'' the spokesperson said. 

Several institutions stress that they are regularly reviewing their own processes. When Michael Brand took over as director of the AGNSW, one of his first moves was to revise its acquisition policy. The NGA says it is currently reviewing its own policy and says it has "already engaged external legal specialists to assist with the review". The Art Gallery of South Australia'director Nick Mitzevich says it has started its own major provenance audit across all of its collections, including Asian art, that will take several years because of the complexity of the task.

There are still works that were purchased from Kapoor in Australian institutions waiting for potential claims to be made, including some on show.

Rattle in the form of a lady playing the drum, at the Art Gallery of NSW.

Rattle in the form of a lady playing the drum, at the Art Gallery of NSW. Photo: Supplied

A stone sculpture of the goddess Durga slaying the buffalo demon, from the 12th or 13th century, can be seen in the NGA's Indian subcontinent gallery, along with a third-century piece titled Scene from the life of the Buddha and another work called The divine couple Lakshmi and Vishnu.

Kapoor's alleged looting and the Australian galleries' apparent complicity in it – even if they were duped – is a moral issue, says Sloggett. It's about the ransacking of culture. "The Shiva had been there hundreds of years and it had a custodian," she says. "Imagine the devastation for that person to walk into the temple one morning and see that it wasn't there anymore, when his father had looked after it. That's a dreadful thing to do to another human being so we can look at it in Canberra.''

Attorney-General George Brandis said the government believed Australia's existing legislative framework was "effective in dealing with cultural property". Best practice guidelines for acquiring cultural objects were being updated, he said.

UNDER A CLOUD

Goddess Durga slaying the buffalo demon, National Gallery of Australia, bought from Art of the Past in 2002. 

Scene from the life of the Buddha, National Gallery of Australia, bought from Art of the Past in 2005.

The divine couple Lakshmi and Vishnu, National Gallery of Australia, bought from Art of the Past in 2006.

Varaha rescuing the earth goddess, Bhudevi, Art Gallery of NSW (taken off display in March), bought from Art of the Past in 1999.

Rattle in the form of a lady playing the drum, Art Gallery of NSW (last displayed in 1997), bought from Art of the Past in 1994.

Corrections: The original version of this story said Four Corners broke the initial story of the Shiva.

Read more: http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/new-guinea-art-collection-is-striking-evidence-of-one-mans-passion-20140529-zrrs9.html#ixzz34aSIpuSY