Inside one of the biggest antiquities-smuggling rings in history.
May 14, 2007 8:01 PM   Subscribe

The Idol Thief "Vaman Ghiya operated one of the most extensive and sophisticated clandestine antiquities rings in history, and he had grown rich in the past three decades by smuggling thousands of Indian antiques to auction houses and private collectors in the West."
posted by dhruva (15 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I read this article in The New Yorker. Fascinating piece. I have to say that this bit made my blood boil:
In 1973, Norton Simon bought a beautiful tenth-century bronze Nataraja, or dancing Shiva, from a dealer in New York for a million dollars. But the Indian government intervened, saying that the statue had been stolen from a village in Tamil Nadu and smuggled abroad. “Hell, yes, it was smuggled,” Simon told the Times. “I spent between $15 and $16 million in the last two years on Asian art, and most of it was smuggled.” It was during this period that Vaman Narayan Ghiya entered the business.
That people revel in buying stolen and mangled ancient art is despicable. I wish they'd go to prison. Or at least have to go to the origin place where the art they bought, knowing it was stolen, personally give the piece back and prostrate themselves before the people who live there, begging their forgiveness.
posted by Kattullus at 8:19 PM on May 14, 2007

Here's a ttv photo of Nataraja that I like, photo by iconomy.
posted by dhruva at 9:44 PM on May 14, 2007

The money quote, I think, is that police found him with hundreds of statues etc, and "a dismantled Mogul pavilion the size of a house."
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:47 PM on May 14, 2007

This Vaman Ghiya...can I find him in all-India phone book?
posted by UbuRoivas at 10:17 PM on May 14, 2007

You can't help but go to a place like the Norton Simon and really wonder if most of this is stolen. The enormity of their collection made even me raise an eyebrow without having heard any allegations at the time.
posted by basicchannel at 10:42 PM on May 14, 2007

Very interesting post, thanks dhruva.

Enjoyed iconomy's photo. Tried to see if there were one of you among his collection.

I've known a few art smugglers of different caliber and can't help wondering if one was implicated along with this unpleasant sounding, big-time Jaipur guy.

Smuggling antiquities is a subject which has a few angles to it, not simply the obvious one that it is morally wrong to sneak antiquities out of a country.

At least two friends of mine have come across ruins in India's forests, where entire temple complexes lay in ruins, neglected and rotting. Locals, who came across stone arms, legs or different parts of sculptures lying in the brambles, routinely used them as rolling pins or grinders for preparing food. The sculptures, once fallen apart into pieces were no longer revered as holy symbols.

When traveling through the back roads in rural Hindu Orissa I came across neglected Buddhist temples, which must have been really quite ancient. Roots of plants and trees were insinuating themselves in every crevice and the structures, with all their carvings were falling elegantly into small bits. While savoring the Buddhist expression of impermanence I couldn't help but feel sad that these crumbling works of art were unlikely to be seen or enjoyed for long by anyone.

Collections at government museums in India were routinely ransacked by the staff, especially because until fairly recently so little was catalogued or genuinely protected. I know this because while in London in 1974 I was asked, but declined, to go to Delhi to help catalogue the art at the main government museum there because the collection was rapidly disappearing.

Also, when India became an official democracy in 1949, the royalty liquidated their assets to survive. Much was smuggled out of the country in collusion with international art dealers, one of whom told me how he smuggled a piece of modern art, a Brancusi, out as a lamp stand. There are many extraordinary anecdotes about this time. The treasures of that time were spectacular, such as a carpet made of diamonds, pearls, rubies and emeralds and measured, roughly, seven and half feet by six feet.

One anecdote that I heard, who knows if it's true, was that a certain maharaja invited a renowned jeweler to assess his pearl collection, which was laid out over several of the roofs of his palaces. The quantity of pearls the maharaja owned was so vast, the jeweler said the world market would be ruined if the collection were released all at one time.

Most large museums around the planet seem to be packed with ancient art that was smuggled out of its original country. Perhaps it has the provenance of being owned by a rich art collector but I think most of the world's great antiquities' collections were obtained from smugglers.
posted by nickyskye at 11:03 PM on May 14, 2007 [6 favorites]

Kattullus, in 1987's Mr. India (by the director of Elizabeth), a statue of Hanuman manipulated by the invisible hero harasses the villians, including a foreign smuggler, until they beg forgiveness (it's supposed to be comedic schadenfreude.)

OMFG, I actually found it on youtube: here.
posted by Firas at 11:04 PM on May 14, 2007 [2 favorites]

The raid was the culmination of a yearlong investigation and months of surveillance, during which officers had posed as vagrants and fruit peddlers.

And their moustaches & paunches didn't give them away?

I visited [SP Shrivastava] last summer at his new post, in Bharatpur

SP of Jaipur to SP of...Bharatpur? Hardly a step up in the world, by anybody's measure. A reward for a job well done?

When, in 1986, the Indian government sued for the return of a twelfth-century bronze Shiva that had been looted from a village in Pathur, it did so on behalf of the offended god himself: Shiva was named as a plaintiff in the case.

Not the kinda guy you'd want to offend, but does he have standing in a court of law?

Customs officers in Mumbai had discovered twenty-one antique objects during a random check of one of his handicrafts shipments. According to the police, and other antique dealers in Jaipur, when the authorities reëxamined the container they concluded that the incriminating items were replicas, not actual antiques. That may have been true, or it may be that Ghiya had bribed the right official.

In India? With the most incorruptible police, customs & border security officials in the world?

on preview: very interesting, nickyskye.

also, I found this snippet from the article of interest:

The [antiquities] law is self-defeating, Pal believes, because it makes no distinction between a masterpiece and any generic antique. The result is a black market that the government lacks the resources to control. Pal prefers the model adopted by Japan, which identifies art works of national significance and keeps them in the country, while allowing everything else to be sold on the open market. The difference between what Walter Benjamin called “cult value” and “exhibition value” makes the issue particularly vexed in India. Indians who are involved in the art world frequently express frustration that their countrymen have little interest in the purely artistic value of religious art.
posted by UbuRoivas at 11:58 PM on May 14, 2007

Firas, that video was awesome! Jai Bajrang bali!
posted by nickyskye at 12:04 AM on May 15, 2007

One common smuggler’s tactic in India is to prepare a copy of a looted antique and present it to the Archaeological Survey; once the survey grants a certificate of “non-antiquity,” the certificate accompanies the genuine antique out of the country.

Oh, yeah, I saw that one. It does warm the cockles of my heart to imagine licensed-to-kill British agents willing to risk their lives for the sake of art, but despite the derring-do in this story I don't think it quite rises to that level.

You can't help but go to a place like the Norton Simon and really wonder if most of this is stolen.

Stolen is such a malleable word in this context, though. Somebody may be the "owner" of something and feel they have the moral right to profit from it. The art world turns a blind eye out of self-interest.

“Hell, yes, it was smuggled,” Simon told the Times. “I spent between $15 and $16 million in the last two years on Asian art, and most of it was smuggled.”

Here, again, the idea is probably that in the face of rampant corruption and wholesale theft, smuggling a bit of "legitimately" purchased art is a smaller crime, and may even be "preserving" it for public enjoyment versus disappearing into private collections to be someone's footstool. This, at least, is what many Western museums have told themselves.
posted by dhartung at 12:47 AM on May 15, 2007

Thanks Firas! I guess I need to start watching Indian films to get my anti-colonialist kicks.
posted by Kattullus at 5:08 AM on May 15, 2007

I blame video games.
posted by jfuller at 5:12 AM on May 15, 2007

I'm torn. I get the indigenous rights thing, to say nothing of the rule of law thing. On the other hand, the more you concentrate the work, esp. when there aren't the resources to take care of them, the more risk they endure from nature, criminals, or politics. Was it worse that art was smuggled out of Afghanistan or to left to the Taliban who diligently effaced countless ancient artifacts in the name of religion? At least the Russian communists were willing to sell their cultural treasure. (Well, that which could be transported, at least. They did have that let's-blow-up-the-churches thing goin.)

If the governments involved could arrange for legal export of just some of the lesser materials, it would go a long way to both orderly spread the cultural wealth worldwide and avoid the inevitable excesses of regional catastrophe. I'd say we could trade a little bit of Grant Wood for some Indian sculpture. Assuming both sides at least intend to treat them with due care.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:34 AM on May 15, 2007

Yes, but in this case there were cases of people breaking into extant temples and stealing the idols for the sake of the export market.
posted by dhruva at 5:38 AM on May 15, 2007

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