Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Reflecting on the Significance of Operation Blackhole

Back in 1991 the British press was full of investigations relating to a particular auction house. Among the stories was the London dealer who denied that he had hidden in a wardrobe during a police raid in India (Sarah Jane Checkland, "Sotheby's expert denies hiding", The Times (London) November 28, 1991).

Now 18 years is a long time ... but something caught my eye. In 2007 Patrick Radden Keefe wrote up the issue of Indian antiquities ("The Idol Thief; Inside one of the biggest antiquities-smuggling rings in history", The New Yorker May 7, 2007). It starts with the June 2003 arrest of Vaman Narayan Ghiya in Jaipur, India. The article, well worth a read, eventually turns to Peter Watson's investigations of the mid 1990s and documented in Sotheby's: Inside Story (1997). Watson records the way that a former employee of the auction house, James Hodges, disclosed information. Keefe puts it like this:
Hodges explained that Ghiya was "a kind of Indian Medici," whose relationship with Sotheby's was so close that he would stop at Hodges's house in Shepherds Bush on his way into London from the airport to drop off antiques he had carried on the plane.
Think of the impact that Giacomo Medici has had on the world of classical antiquities: museum after museum returning antiquities to Italy ... and who knows what other 1000s (literally) of items have yet to identified.

So Ghiya's role in supplying Indian antiquities is compared to Medici. Keefe continued with the account of Operation Blackhole and the work of Indian superintendent of police, Anand Shrivastava, who is tracking down the looters.

But Keefe dropped in a really interesting comment and observation:
A regal Jain Tirthankara that the police say Ghiya's men stole from Krishna Vilas, an Archaeological Survey-protected site in Rajasthan, turned up as Lot 135 in Sotheby's September, 2000, catalogue, with an estimated price of twenty-five thousand to thirty-five thousand dollars. (A Sotheby's spokeswoman told me that the auction house has "not knowingly sold any items" consigned by Ghiya since 1997, and has "the most rigorous due diligence program in the art market." She also said that Lot 135 was consigned by a New York dealer who to her knowledge has no connection to Ghiya.)
Lot 135 in the "Indian and Southeast Asian Art" sale of Friday September 22, 2000 was described as follows:
An Indian red sandstone figure of a Jina circa 12th century
standing naked on a block pedestal containing a pair of guardian lions, his hands pendent by his sides, and quadrapartite chest ornamented with a diamond shaped srivatsa, his circular face with serene expression and smiling mouth with recessed corners, wide heavy-lidded eyes, delicately arched eyebrows, attended by two smaller figures, the upper section with a pair of apsaras beneath a pair of rampant elephants flanking a prostrate central figure surmounting a tiered canopy
height 56 in. (142.2 cm.)
Its estimate was $25000-$35000. It remained unsold. There is no mention of collecting history.

The piece appears to have been mentioned in an earlier report (Antony Barnett, "Sotheby's faces probe on sales of temple loot: The arrest of an Indian millionaire on charges of stealing antiques has raised questions about the role of a famous British auction house in the sale of rare artefacts", The Observer July 6, 2003).
On 22 September 2000, there was a major auction of Indian art and antiques at Sotheby's in New York. One lot in the catalogue was a twelfth-century red sandstone figure that was priced at Dollars 35,000 (pounds 21,000).

Indian police now confirm that this valuable sculpture was stolen from the Vilasgarh temple in September 1999. The theft had been recorded at the local police station.

'Ghiya purchased these idols for one million rupees (pounds 13,000) and smuggled them out of India,' said Srivastava.
Barnett's article finished with a statement from Sotheby's:
The spokeswoman said: 'Sotheby's requires all its consignors to warrant that they have legal title to sell items consigned by them and we do not accept for sale items where there is any reason to think that this warranty may not be true. If we were ever subsequently provided with information suggesting that any items, sold or to be sold, had been stolen, we would always cooperate with the authorities and/or any claimants.'
Why am I interested in this story? Why should I be curious about Indian antiquities that surfaced without documented histories on the New York market in 2000?

What will be scale of the fallout from the "Ghiya Conspiracy"?

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