The Dancing Shiva statue in the National Gallery of Australia earlier this month. Photo: Jay Cronan
The National Gallery of Australia will remove from public display a Dancing Shiva statue that is at the centre of an international antiquities smuggling scandal.
However, 21 other items purchased by the Canberra-based gallery from disgraced antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is currently on trial in India for looting temples, will remain on public display.
The decision to remove the Indian statue that was purchased for $US5 million in 2008 from Mr Kapoor is an embarrassing backdown for the beleaguered gallery.
Centre of scandal ... Dancing Shiva statue. Photo: Supplied
The NGA had insisted it would continue to display the statue, which has been consistently on exhibition since February 2008, according to a statement released on March 24.
"The Shiva and other objects purchased from Art of the Past will continue to be on display for the benefit of all Australians and visitors until the matter is resolved," it said.
The Dancing Shiva statue was one of 22 objects that the NGA purchased for an estimated total of $11 million from Mr Kapoor’s Art of the Past gallery between 2002 and 2011.
A statement issued on Wednesday from the Attorney-General’s Department suggests political pressure might have been applied to the NGA.
"The National Gallery of Australia is continuing its cooperation with the department to fulfil Australia’s international commitments and has voluntarily removed the statue from display."
The statement also confirmed that India’s government has asked for the return of the Dancing Shiva statue on the basis it was illegally taken out of India: "The request states that the statue was exported from India in contravention of cultural property laws, namely India’s Antiquity and Art Treasures Act 1972."
A spokeswoman for the Attorney-General’s Department said the NGA did not have to remove the 900-year-old statue from display but following the Indian government’s request ‘‘both the National Gallery of Australia and the department considers it appropriate to remove the Shiva from display’’.
If the Dancing Shiva is found to have been illegally removed from India, the NGA will be forced to return it without compensation.
The Art Gallery of NSW is also embroiled in the smuggling scandal after purchasing six items from Mr Kapoor between 1994 and 2004, including a stone sculpture of the God Ardhanarishvara that was almost certainly stolen from an Indian temple.
The NGA and its outgoing director Ron Radford have been under pressure for failing to properly check the ownership history of items purchased from Mr Kapoor and the subsequent handling of the scandal.
Arts Minister George Brandis said the decision to buy the statue for $US5 million in February 2008 was "incautious".
"There couldn’t have, in my view, been a sufficient level of confidence in the provenance of the object to make the decision to acquire it at the time appropriate," he said.
Duncan Chappell, a Sydney University criminologist who specialises in art crime, was critical of the gallery’s prominent display of the Dancing Shiva without any explanation of its doubtful provenance.
"They should either remove it entirely or put up an explanatory note," he told Fairfax Media. "It is a very unsatisfying situation that compounds what is already an international embarrassment over this matter."