Antiquities and Art Treasures Act in India : An Analysis

Context:The recent recovery of antiques from a house in Chennai by the Idol Wing of CID Tamil Nadu highlights the issue of illegal possession and trade of antiques and art treasures in India

What are antiquities?

  • According to the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, an “antiquity” is an article or object that is at least 100 years old. These illustrates the science, art, crafts or customs or religion or literature of a bygone age, or anything of historical interest.

As per the Act, Antiquity includes:

  1. any coin, sculpture, painting epigraph or other work of art or craftsmanship;
  2. any article, object or thing detached from a building or cave;
  3. any article, object or thing illustrative of science, art, crafts, literature, religion, customs, morals or politics in bygone ages;
  4. any article, object or thing of historical interest;
  5. any article, object or thing declared by the Central Government, by notification in the Official Gazette, to be an antiquity for the purposes of this Act
  • If it is a manuscript or record of any scientific, historical, literary or aesthetic value, it should be at least 75 years’ old.

What is an art treasure?

An art treasure is a human work of art, other than an antiquity, declared to be a treasure by the Centre for its artistic value after the artist’s death.

Issues:

Illicit Trade:India’s rich cultural heritage,bureaucratic apathy and poor implementation of antiquities protection law has made India a fertile ground for loot and smuggling of antiquities for sale in the International market. In recent years, there has been growing concerns over antiques being smuggled and sold to fund terrorists’ activists.

Lack of database: There is a lack of an integrated database of existing and stolen artefacts. In the absence of any centralised information, there is always a high risk of loss of antiquities.

Poor conservation:Poor restoration and conservation of antiquities in museums is a major concern. Most of the antiques and art treasures need immediate conservation. In most cases, the objects received for conservation are already damaged beyond restoration.

Constitutional Provisions

Article 49: Protection of monuments and places and objects of national importance

It shall be the obligation of the State to protect every monument or place or object of artistic or historic interest, declared by or under law made by Parliament to be of national importance, from spoliation, disfigurement, destruction, removal, disposal or export, as the case may be.

Preventive measures:

  1. The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972’and the ‘Rules’ thereon framed in 1973replaced the Antiquities (Export Control) Act, 1947. The Act provides for:
  • Compulsory registration of notified categories of antiquities
  • Regulating the export trade in antiquities and art treasures.Section 3 of the Act prohibits export of an antiquity by anyone other than the Centre or its agencies.
  • Prevention of smuggling of, and fraudulent dealings in antiques
  • Compulsory acquisition of antiquities and art treasures for preventionin public places
  1. To facilitate Custom Authorities in allowing non-antiquities to be exported, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has established Expert Advisory Committees to issue non-antiquity certificates.
  2. All important international exit points for sea and air transportation has been provided with ASI officers to help and assist the Custom authorities to distinguish between antiques and non-antiques
  3. An Antique Cell has been opened in Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for investigation into cases of thefts and losses of antiques
  4. National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities (2007):It aimedto prepare a National Register on Antiquities by documenting antiquities from different sources in a uniform format. As of 2016, over 14 lakh antiquities have been documented (Culture Ministry)

Civil Society Initiative: India Pride Project: It is a volunteer-network spread across the globe, that tracks and brings back India’s stolen antiques and art treasures

International Measures:

  1. Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970):The Convention provides that the contracting parties would take steps to prevent illicit import into their territories of stolen cultural property.
  2. UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects (1995):It defines nature of the objects covered and includes provisions for the restitution of stolen property.The Convention calls for the return of illegally exported cultural objects and outlines the circumstances under which such property shall be ordered returned.  

Challenges:

1.Definition of Antiquity: Critics argue that the legal definition is so wide that anything over 100 years automatically becomes an antiquity.

2.Replicas:The production of replica of an antiquity in the same size, material and fabric is not prohibited. This gap in law has greatly facilitated replacement of several original objects with replicas

3.Deterrence to registration:The 1972 Act introduced various avenues for the government to raid and prosecute private collectors on grounds, like “inadequate maintenance of the object”. Stringent curbs have been placed on the movement and trade of antiquities, even within India. Such provisions deter most people from registering their antiquities.This has inadvertently led to the smuggling of antiques by discouraging the domestic trade.

Further, registering antiquities with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has been a cumbersome and difficult procedure for most collectors deterring registration

  1. Punishment:The penal provisions in the Act are too mild to deter people from violating theAct.

5.Issues with ASI: The ASI’s focus and resources have been primarily channelled towards the maintenance, restoration and preservation of ancient monuments and archaeological sites. The additional mandate for supervising the antiquities market has put a strain on its limited resources.

  1. Issues with Investigation: The investigative agency dealing with theft/ smuggling of antiques are lack expertise in dealing with such cases. The CBI has not built the capacity to deal with stolen antiquities. A few State government who have special wings as part of their police force, are also understaffed and unqualified. This also led to low appearance of Indian antiquities on the stolen list of Interpol.

Proposed Amendment to Antiquities Act, 1972

The Draft Antiquities and Art Treasures Regulation, Export and Import Bill, 2017

The important provisions of the Bill are:

  • It says that every licence issued under the 1972 Act will stand repealed once the new bill becomes a law.
  • The draft prohibits the export of antiques, unless it is done by the government or its agencies.
  • However, it allows trade in such items virtually without any restrictions within the country. A dealer must notify the government of the transaction through an online portal maintained by the ASI
  • The draft has also waived customs duty for anyone who brings back antiques of Indian-origin after lawful purchase and artists who bring back their own creations.

The Draft Antiquities Bill, 2017 has raised concerns among activists about facilitating theft and boost illegal trade due to its loose provisions on registration and licence

International Best Practice: The cultural heritage squad of Carabinieri, the Italian armed police force.

  • The Cultural Heritage squad (set up in 1969) has built an impressive database of about 1.1 million missing artefacts and is the most acclaimed police force in protecting antiquities.
  • The officers are well-trained in art history, international law, and investigative techniques.
  • Till 2016, the force has recovered more than 8,00,000 stolen artefacts within the country. The squad is also known for its aggressive pursuit of restitution cases.

Way Forward

  1. Poor management and smuggling of antiques highlight the loopholes in Antiquity Act of 1972 and the need to bring about a new comprehensive law to safeguard Indian Antiques and art treasures.
  2. museum security requirements should be assessed and strengthened to curb theft of antiques and artefacts
  3. The Archaeological Society of India (ASI) must be tasked only with the preservation and maintenance of public antiquities. The ASI must not be overburdened with responsibilities which fall outside the scope of its core competence. Therefore, there is an urgent need to create empowered agencies to deal with antiques
  4. It is important to develop a robust database of existing and stolen antiques and artefacts. As advised by Central Information Commission, centralised public documentation system containing the details and photographs of stolen antiques is an urgent need.
  5. An international collaboration is required to stop illegal export and import of antiques.
  6. It is important to cultivate public engagement and awareness for the protection of India’s cultural heritage
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