Lack of object history cast shadow on many museums’ collections

Statue of Nataraja, returned to India from Australia. Source: The Straits Times 20150120

A special report about high-profile returns from museums to India; topical because it mentions Singapore’s Asian Civilisations Museum.

Statue of Nataraja, returned to India from Australia. Source: The Straits Times 20150120
Statue of Nataraja, returned to India from Australia. Source: The Straits Times 20150120

Museums and the plunder of antiquities
Straits Times, 20 January 2015

Indeed, Singapore’s prestigious Asian Civilisations Museum, too, has been caught up in the scandal. It was a client of Kapoor, reportedly having bought 30 works of art from him between 1997 and 2010. On-going court cases in the US revealed that at least two of these items bought for a total of US$785,000 may have been stolen. These include a gilded altar of Christ and the Virgin Mary from Goa, dating from around the late 18th century and acquired by the museum in 2009 for US$135,000.

The museum, run by Singapore’s National Heritage Board, said it had made “all possible checks” on the provenance of the two artefacts that deemed them to have been “legally and ethically acquired”. It said it was monitoring the court proceedings in the US and would fully cooperate with the foreign authorities in any investigation.

The only really comprehensive study of provenance undertaken was in 2000 by British archaeologists Christopher Chippindale and David Gill. They systematically reviewed the reliability of claimed provenance in the catalogues of seven important international collections of antiquities.

They found that as much as 75 per cent of the 1,396 objects they reviewed had no documented provenance whatsoever. Over 500 of the antiquities did not have any “object history”, which meant they appeared for the first time in those public exhibitions, underscoring the fact that they were sourced from clandestine excavations.

Full story here.

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Author: Noel Tan

Dr Noel Hidalgo Tan is the Senior Specialist in Archaeology at SEAMEO-SPAFA, the Southeast Asian Regional Centre for Archaelogy and Fine Arts.

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