Since 2014 National Gallery of Australia (NGA) has returned millions of dollars in stolen antiquities to India. This year they announced that $13 million of stolen antiquities would be returned. They are still cleaning up after Subhash Kapoor’s massive criminal enterprise exposed the box-ticking exercise that was the NGA’s provenance checking.
The Nataraja from the village of Sri Puranthan in Tamil Nadu brought to light the quantity of stolen Indian antiquities in Australian public galleries. Kapoor had organised its theft, smuggling, restoration, and sale. However, in his career as director of the Gallery of South Australia and then the NGA, Ron Radford purchased not just one but two stolen Natarajas, antique bronze idols of Shiva as Lord of the Dance. As the old saying goes: fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.
After the extraordinary amount of stolen goods found in the NGA’s collection, it claims to have reformed its approach to provenance. Its website now contains the following statement: “Provenance decision-making at the National Gallery is determined by an evidence-based approach evaluated on the balance of probabilities, anchored in robust legal and ethical decision-making principles and considerations.” However, this new position on provenance decision-making does not include the land that the NGA is on. Even as the NGA acknowledges, in the footer of the webpage that explains their new ethical provenance standards, “the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of the Canberra region, and recognises their continuous connection to culture, community and Country”.
Based on robust legal and ethical decision-making principles, they would conclude that the land does not belong to Australia. The provenance for the land’s ownership is not “based on documents” as the Australian government has no treaty with Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, nor any other Indigenous people. And documents of ownership from the British Empire have as much veracity as the provenance documents issued by Kapoor’s gallery Art of the Past.
Empires pillage, destroy and steal items from other cultures, pillaging and destroying sacred places. Consider the stolen Hindu gods and other parts of temples along with the local Indigenous sacred sites that Australian governments allow to be destroyed for mines, dams and roads. They part of the same process and reflect the same set of values.
Australian imperialism is a mutant strain of British imperialism that has become endemic in some Pacific and Indian Oceans islands. For there is an Australian Empire, however, few the islands (Australia, Christmas Island, Cocos Islands, Norfolk Island, and some uninhabited islands) that it currently consists of. This is not forgetting that until 1975 it included Papua New Guinea and Nauru from 1920-1968.
As an empire’s national gallery, the NGA needs to be an encyclopaedic museum, like the British Museum. Encyclopaedic museums have permanent collections of art from many parts of the world and periods of history. And like the British Museum with the Benin Bronzes and Parthenon marbles, the NGA acquired many items with dubious provenance for its collection. However, unlike the British Museum, the NGA has been forced to return some stolen items in its collection.
Why does provenance decision making at the NGA only apply to the objects in its collection and not the land it is on? How can you have an “Australian National Gallery” in Ngunnawal and Ngambri country? And how can the NGA, and the other Australian state galleries, resolve this contradiction between their provenance policies and the stolen land they occupy?