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Australia's ill-advised purchase of Indian artefact

The National Gallery of Australia bought the Shiva statue despite uncertainty over its provenance

Canberra

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) did not follow its solicitor’s advice before buying a 900-year-old bronze statue of Shiva Nataraja, allegedly stolen from India, the gallery’s chairman Allan Myers disclosed in a letter, dated 6 March, to Australia’s attorney-general George Brandis.

The Canberra museum purchased the Shiva in 2008 for $5m from Manhattan’s Art of the Past gallery, owned by Subhash Kapoor, which closed in 2012. The dealer is on trial in India for smuggling antiquities out of that country, a charge he denies, and the scandal has entangled museums worldwide that bought antiquities from him.

The solicitor Shane Simpson, in a letter dated 13 January 2008 appended to Myers’s correspondence, wrote that there was “no evidence that provides any clue as to the origin of the object” and warned the institution of the “inherent risk” in buying the Shiva. He added that the documentation was “at best, thin”, and the seller’s legal title could not be confirmed. Simpson outlined procedures the museum should undertake to determine whether the statue was stolen. “Not all the [solicitor’s] suggestions were acted on,” Myers’s letter stated.

The museum purchased the Shiva on 26 February 2008, a few weeks after receiving Simpson’s letter and its warning. A spokesman for the NGA confirms that the gallery had been working with the solicitor since late 2007 to make sure it “considered the issues/or secured the documentation as best it could”.

Last December in New York, Kapoor’s gallery manager Aaron Freedman pleaded guilty to possessing stolen property. He admitted that he and Kapoor knew the Shiva was stolen.

Australia is considering India’s request to return the Shiva, says a spokeswoman for the attorney-general. Contrary to reports that the statue will be repatriated, she adds: “There are a number of steps to be taken… before a final decision can be made.”

The museum announced at the end of March that its director Ron Radford will retire at the end of his contract in September. A spokesman for the museums says this decision is unrelated to the Shiva dispute.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Lawyer did warn Shiva was a risk'