The Problem of Provenance : How Art-theft and provenance of artwork poses a problem in India and the world

The Problem of Provenance : How Art-theft and provenance of artwork poses a problem in India and the world

  • Posted on: December 16, 2014
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By : Sharanya Deepak

The term “art provenance” mainly refers to the origin and history of the painting. The provenance of an artwork determines who created it, how it was created, and goes through all the players in the process of its creation. Art provenance has been a long standing issue in the art world. Inexperienced buyers are often mislead by forged ownership histories of bogus art.  Therefore the authenticity of provenance is extremely important.  In her book, Lanis whatever talks about art crime being related to terrorism and drug thefts.

“By the end of the 20th century, Interpol was ranking art crime as one of the world’s most profitable criminal activities, second only to drug smuggling and weapons dealing. The three activities were related: Drug pushers were moving stolen and smuggled art down the same pipelines they used for narcotics, and terrorists were using looted antiquities to fund their activities. This latter trend began in 1974, when the IRA stole $32 million worth of paintings by Rubens, Goya, and Vermeer. In 2001, the Taliban looted the Kabul museum and “washed” the stolen works in Switzerland. Stolen art was much more easily transportable than drugs or arms. A customs canine, after all, could hardly be expected to tell the difference between a crap Kandinksy and a credible one.” 

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Kandinsky, Composition VII. 1913

In October 2012, many paintings by artists like Picasso, Matisse, Gaugin, Meyer de Haan and two by Monet were stolen from a gallery in Rotterdam. The suspected reason behind Rotterdam being the city of choice, is that it is one of the largest ports in Europe and the word, and transporting these works would be easy. Lucian Freud’s “Woman with her eyes closed” was also among the stolen paintings. The collective worth of these paintings was appointed at a rough 50-52 million, and it was suspected that the paintings were stolen by an art collector, hanging on a wall somewhere by now, never to be found.

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Lucian Freud, Woman with Eyes Closed, 2002

Art theft is a popular trade for many reasons. Firstly, The motivation for this kind of popularity of theft comes from the fact that artworks are lightweight and can weigh up to a million dollars. However, it is unlikely, that once artworks are stolen, they will be sold in an open market. A famous Matisse or a Picasso will be too easily recognized. Therefore art-theft has often been determined to be an appointed crime by an art-lover. But mostly, art-theft is connected to drug trafficking, used as collateral in large drug deals. In 2003, the theft of Edvard Munch’s Scream from Norway was traced back to a racing driver and a druglord, and found stored hastily in a van. A Caravaggio stolen decades ago by the Sicilian mafia was found to be badly handled and destroyed. Though many times, art is stolen for art’s sake, it is often used as a blip in large drug deals. Therefore art-theft is an erratic indulgent crime,leading galleries and original owners of art to utmost despair, as the worth of an original artwork cannot be replaced. Though one may know what a Monet looks like, experience it, but the magnificence of the original must be mourned when it is possibly lying somewhere in a ditch.

The_Scream
Edvard Munch, The Scream, 1893

Unlike the West, Indian art has poorly kept art provenance. Records are hasty and badly kept. Though each artwork, sculpture or painting is supposed to be kept in recorded ownership of the government, art-theft in the nation has been seen to be a fairly easy crime to execute. The largest theft of , The trail of the biggest such racket revealed so far was traced back to Jaipur. Vaman Nariyan Ghiya, the owner of a handicrafts shop in Jaipur, had managed to acquire a dismantled Mughal pavilion, and 348 sculptures. Police sources in the country say that Indian smugglers invest small and make big. that smugglers from Tamil Nadu typically invest less and sell big. They would make replicas at registered, authorized craftsmen, and then use small containers to transport the originals to where they wanted. Customs authorities, often untrained, would not be able to tell the difference or the value of an artwork, making the job of the smugglers fairly simple.

A 12th century Nataraja displayed in the British Museum in 1982 further extended the pressing matter of art-theft. Indians believe that divine sculptures must be in temples, and not in museums, and art-theft therefore interferes not only with aesthetic and financial realms, but also with faith. The Nataraja, stolen in 1976 from a temple in Tamil Nadu caused a lot of uproar and the British Government was immediately requested to send it back. Art theft has often been dismissed as being a romantic crime, art thieves have said to be desirous romantics who would dare cross the law to have the artwork of their choice. However, in India, this poses a huge problem and legal experts say that the real problem is an ignorance of the police and customs authorities towards our nation’s rich history. Combined with slacking provenance methods, it is not surprising that jewels and ancient sculptures often fall into the wrong hands. shiva_bronze_massif12th century Nataraja

Art theft therefore, remains to be a pressing concern in the 21st century. However, people have argued that all art thieves must not be condemned. Should there then be a more complex judgement when it comes to judging art crimes? Should art only belong to governments and the wealthy or must ownership also be extended to those who cannot afford it? Art thieves have often been branded as desirous romantics, even inviting praise from some. But when it comes to India, accountability lies with the state to take better measures to preserve the provenance of the country’s art.