The National Gallery of Australia should be leading the way when it comes to returning suspect works of art to their countries of origin, its director says.
Announcing Thursday that the gallery would be returning 14 more works of art from its Asian art collection to India, Nick Mitzevich said the gallery was trying to "build confidence" with its transparent approach to returning possibly looted artworks.
The works being repatriated include 13 objects connected to disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor through his infamous New York dealership Art of the Past, and one acquired from art dealer William Wolff.
Another three works bought through Kapoor have also been removed from the collection, and will be subject to further research before being repatriated.
The gallery has been working to determine the provenance of many items in it vast Asian art collection since revelations emerged in 2014 that Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja), one of the 21 works the gallery acquired from Art of the Past, had been looted from a temple in Tamil Nadu in southern India.
The 11th or 12th century Chola-period bronze, bought in 2008 for $5.6 million, was returned to India by then-prime minister Tony Abbott in September 2014, along with a sculpture Kapoor had sold to the Art Gallery of NSW.
Mr Mitzevich's predecessor, Gerard Vaughan, took up his post in 2014 in the midst of the ongoing scandal, and one of his first acts was to commission a review into the Asian art collection.
The independent review, conducted by former High Court Justice Susan Crennan, found 22 works of uncertain origin, 14 of which had been bought from Kapoor.
Mr Mitzevich, who took over the top job in 2018, has since commissioned a second report from Ms Crennan, and said the gallery had developed a "balance of probabilities" approach when it comes to determining an object's provenance.
"If you were to view this purely through a legal lens, you would continue to have uncertainty," Mr Mitzevich.
"So we've applied a balance of probabilities to the information that we had, and then also overlaid that with an ethical framework, and that's taken us to the point we're at right now. So all of that work has been an evolution."
He said his aim was to make the collection "better and smaller".
"Less is more - the collection needs to enrich the lives of Australians, and one doesn't do that through volume," he said.
And he said it was important to look to the future.
"We've got a zero tolerance for provenance, so if we've got concerns, we will investigate them, and we'll de-accession them both on legal or ethical concerns, so there is a basis for our decision-making," he said.
"What it means is that we can make decisions about things so we move beyond the long-term uncertainty about objects.
"Most of these objects are either religious or cultural objects, and as an institution in the 21st century, I can't have uncertainty over these objects.
"As you know, I've had generally a very open approach to the institution. There's a lot of information about these works on our website, so we want to be transparent."
He said as a national institution, the gallery should be at the forefront of responsible collecting.
"I want to describe it as building confidence, rather than being a leader, because you become a leader once you've resolved all your issues," he said.
Meanwhile, Indian High Commissioner to Australia Manpreet Vohra welcomed the decision to return the works.
"These are outstanding pieces: their return will be extremely well-received by the government and people of India," he said.
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