Taking "Looting" to A Whole New Level: Vaman Ghiya

There's the makings of a nice suspense novel in a recent New Yorker piece on one of India's greatest -- and most evil -- contemporary antiquities smugglers, Vaman Narayan Ghiya. Ghiya operated a transnational smuggling network out of Jaipur, which included three Swiss shell companies that bought and sold smuggled vast quantities of Indian antiquities, ultimately so the priceless works could be acquired by London auction houses -- and "legally" sold at Sotheby's and Christie's.

Ghiya, who was extremely cautious in his business operations, was brought down by a dedicated police officer, Anand Shrivastava, who essentially dedicated years to learning about the workings of the international antiquities market in order to better understand the criminal side of it. Almost miraculously, Ghiya wasn't able to bribe his way out of prison, nor was bail allowed in his case -- and his case is currently in process. Just to give you a sense of scale, here's what the police found when they raided Ghiya's house and his various warehouses:

Then Superintendent Shrivastava and his men searched the house, spending hours rummaging through the elegant rooms. Behind the wood panelling of Ghiya’s private study, the officers discovered a set of secret cupboards, which held hundreds of photographs of ancient Indian sculptures: graceful stone figures of the deities Vishnu, Shiva, and Parvati and Parvati’s elephant-headed son, Ganesha; Jain Tirthankaras and Chola bronzes; dancing goddesses with many arms and melon breasts, festooned with delicately rendered ornaments. The photographs were color snapshots, and the objects pictured sat outdoors, in patches of grass or mud. Many evidently had been roughly pried away from temple walls and were missing limbs or heads. The police also discovered sixty-eight glossy auction catalogues from Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London and New York.

This stash seemed to confirm Shrivastava’s suspicion that Vaman Ghiya operated one of the most extensive and sophisticated clandestine antiquities rings in history, and that he had grown rich in the past three decades by smuggling thousands of Indian antiques to auction houses and private collectors in the West. The police found no sculptures in Ghiya’s home. But, in the days that followed, Shrivastava’s men raided half a dozen properties that Ghiya owned around Jaipur, his farm outside the city, and various godowns, or storage facilities, in Mathura and Delhi. They discovered antique paintings, swords and shields, marble panels, stone pillars, three hundred and forty-eight pieces of sculpture, and a dismantled Mogul pavilion the size of a small house. (link)

Ghiya was able to operate for so long partly because he had a legitimate crafts shop as a front in Jaipur. Ghiya was also helped by India's notoriously "flexible" customs system:

Ghiya’s handicrafts business had many hallmarks of a front. India’s Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, passed in 1972, is a particularly stringent measure, which requires that any privately owned work of art that is more than a hundred years old be registered with the government. Since it is generally illegal to export such objects, to be an antique dealer in India with an international clientele is also arguably to be a criminal. But Indian customs officers are required to check only ten per cent of any large shipment of exports, and smugglers frequently bury a single priceless statue in a giant case of bric-a-brac. (link)

Alongside Customs, Ghiya's business was facilitated by India's underfunded Archeological agency, the Archeological Survey of India -- which has never even fully indexed all of India's major archeological treasures, much less employed staff to protect and maintain them. Ghiya also had an ingenious system, where he would commission the production of fakes of particularly important works he stole, and have the ASI officially certify that the fakes were in fact fake. He would then attach the "This is not an original" slip to the original he had stolen, so there wouldn't be a problem at Customs.

Of course, part of why Ghiya's crimes are particularly troubling is the fact that many of the stolen religious sculptures were in fact still being actively worshipped:

For religious Hindus, images of the gods are not merely representational; they can be inhabited by the deity they depict. The faithful anoint the statues with oils, camphor, and sandalwood, garland them with flowers, and make offerings of food, incense, and music. (The word “idol,” though largely abandoned by Western academics because of its perceived pejorative connotation, remains in use in India to describe these objects.) 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. “In the south, people still don’t tell lies in Shiva’s temple,” Ashok Shekhar, a former state arts and culture official in Rajasthan, told me. “These are very hotheaded deities.”

This aspect of Hinduism seems not to have bothered Ghiya, who was more concerned about how much his western buyers were willing to pay than whether his actions constituted desecration on an extaordinary scale.

Of course, Ghiya is not the first to pillage India's treasures -- this goes back to the British Raj (and perhaps before; but let's not get into Vijayanagar again...). But this is fresh pillaging, and in some ways worse: what's striking is that western buyers, which includes museums such as the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the British Museum, as well as smaller museums (the Cleveland Museum) continued to buy "newly discovered" antiquities from India even after it was made perfectly clear that the export of such antiquities was forbidden by modern Indian law. Are any of these museums planning to return the stolen antiquities now that Ghiya has been arrested and his network exposed?

Sotheby's London at least has been deeply affected by Ghiya's arrest. Ghiya's contact at Sotheby's was a dealer named Peter Watson, who was forced to resign once it became clear that he had been extensively engaged in acquiring smuggled goods from Ghiya. Eventually, it spread: Sotheby's entire antiquities wing in London was forced to shut down.

The law itself might be part of the problem. Japan, which has also had its share of looting and pillaging, has what might be a better system:

The antiquities law has many critics. “The law as it stands doesn’t benefit anybody,” said the scholar and curator Pratapaditya Pal, who came to the United States in the mid-nineteen-sixties and built several renowned collections, including Norton Simon’s. The 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.

Yes -- taxes could be extracted on the sale of works deemed not of national significance, and those taxes could be directly channeled to the ASI, which would then be better able to protect and maintain the artifacts that are of national significance.

And there are many other issues raised by this article, which I unfortunately don't have time to get into at present. I would strongly recommend readers to check out Patrick Radden Keefe's whole article -- journalism like this pretty much justifies my New Yorker subscription.