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Looting Matters: Are Toxic Antiquities From India Surfacing on the Market

David Gill, archaeologist, reflects on the possible implications of the investigation into an antiquities dealer from Jaipur, India.

In June 2003 a dealer in antiquities was arrested in Jaipur. He had aroused suspicion in the 1990s during an undercover investigation by British journalist Peter Watson. One of the leads had been provided by a former employee of a major London auction-house. He had described the dealer as ‘a kind of Indian Medici,’ an allusion to Giacomo Medici who had been supplying antiquities from Italy for the London market. Raids on Medici’s warehouse in the Geneva Freeport provided the trail that led to several North American museums. Photographs seized by police also helped to identify items that have surfaced on the market in subsequent years. These ‘toxic antiquities’ may have been residing in a private collection for some years. A London auction house that tried to sell some of the material in October 2008 had to withdraw items at the eleventh hour under pressure from Italian authorities.

So now there is an ‘Indian Medici.’ And by implication there is the likelihood that antiquities from India purchased in recent decades will be identified in the on-going Indian investigation known as ‘Operation Blackhole.’

Already one piece handled by the Jaipur dealer has been reportedly identified in a September 2000 New York auction of ‘Indian and Southeast Asian Art.’ It appears that it was consigned for the auction by a New York dealer; there was no apparent link with the man under investigation.

The implication is clear. If the Jaipur dealer was releasing thousands of antiquities from India onto the market, where are they now? Are some of the ‘toxic’ pieces already in public and private collections waiting to be identified?

What action can museums take to avoid a scandal on the scale of the ‘Medici Conspiracy?’ They need to be wary of acquiring any antiquities from India that do not have a documented collecting history that can be traced to the period prior to 1970, the date of the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. This is also the deadline recommended by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) in its new policy for acquisitions launched in 2008.