Tag Archives: stolen sculpture

Imperialist Loot and Stolen Land

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 Sri Puranthan Nataraja

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?


Stolen & Restored Statues

In 2010 thieves stole Loretta Quinn’s sculpture “Within Three Worlds” from Princess Park stolen using an angle grinder to cut the bronze statue off at its feet. Now, in 2011, new edition of the statue has been cast and it has now been installed in its original location.

Loretta Quinn “Within Three Worlds” 1995 original

Loretta Quinn “Within Three Worlds” 1995 restored

The new version of “Within Three Worlds” is different from the original, almost completely different but the three boats in the pond are still original. The new statue is better than the original, it is less clunky, the shoes, hands and dress are more detailed and the hair curves more elegantly. Most obvious difference is that the new statue has a green finish on the dress and shoes. It has also been moved a metre closer to the pond.

It is good to see the statue back and the restoration of the stolen has been completed with refilling of the ornamental pond that it is located beside (the pond was dry due to a prolonged drought in Melbourne). The statue is dedicated to the memory of Angela Jane Esdaile (1969 – 1993) and commemorates the contribution to the community of childcare workers like Angela. (See my blog post about the Missing Statue.)

Stolen public sculpture in Melbourne receives little attention, as Melbourne’s public is more interested in an art scandal than an art theft. The bronze dog, “Larry LaTrobe” was stolen from the city square in 1995. The current “Larry LaTrobe” is another edition courtesy of Peter Kolliner, the owner of the foundry where the original was cast. The regular theft of the hammer from “The Pathfinder” by John Robinson, 1974 in the Queen Victoria Gardens required that the replacement be unscrewed every night. The recurring theft of the hammer from the statue became such a problem that the hammer is now rarely installed (or has the replacement been stolen?).

None of these stolen statues have been recovered; it is unfortunate but these bronze sculptures were probably stolen for the scrap metal. This was probably the fate of the 1m metal statue of Christ stolen from a Templestowe Church in August 2010 reported in Manningham Leader. The only stolen public sculpture that has been recovered is “the boy with the turtle” (artist unknown c.1850) that was stolen in 1977 from Fitzroy Gardens and recovered two and a half years later abandoned in a Richmond carpark. It was saved because it is only made of cement and cement has little intrinsic value.

An English fantasy illustrator told me that he’d returned home to find that his flat was being burgled. The two burglars bailed him up and asked if he’d done the art; he told them it was his and they complimented him on his art and left taking nothing. The Marius-Jacob gang went even further on discovering that they had broken into the house of a French poet they left money to replace the pane of glass that they had broken. Robbing artists or stealing public sculpture for scrap metal lacks any dignity as a crime, like stealing from charity bins.


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