News | NGA releases report on their Asian Art Provenance project

Image of Goddess Durga statue

One of the works considered to have ‘highly problematic’ provanance Gujarat, India
Goddess Durga slaying the buffalo demon [Durga Mahisasuramardini]
12th-13th century
Materials & Technique: sculptures, sandstone
Dimensions: 60.0 h x 37.5 w x 17.5 d cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2002
Accession No: NGA 2002.373

Last week the NGA published the results of their independent review of their Asian Art Provenance Project. The review followed the scandal over the 12th century Shiva statue that was revealed to be part of a cache of art looted from a temple and sold by now-disgraced New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor.

The review has turned up a 22 objects with questionable provenance (including the already returned Shiva and the soon-to-be-returned Seated Buddha).

The NGA director Gerard Vaughan said ‘I welcome Mrs Crennan’s independent assessment which clarifies the legal and ethical framework in which the NGA’s collecting should take place; this will prove invaluable for ongoing provenance-checking and comparative risk assessment. The review provides a clear set of guidelines which the NGA can incorporate into its acquisition procedures and due diligence policies, and which the Gallery can use in retrospectively assessing items already in the collection.’

As part of ongoing discussions with the Indian Government, the NGA this week briefed the High Commission of India in Australia on the report. The Indian High Commissioner Mr Navdeep Suri congratulated the NGA on their work to untangle the ‘complex issue of provenance of ancient objects.In establishing a framework for restitution of a stolen property to the country of its origin, NGA has set a worthy example for other countries and institutions to follow.’

You can download the full report from the NGA website. Some excerpts below:

Review summary:

  • 22 objects have insufficient or questionable provenance documentation – this includes the Shiva which was returned to India in 2014 and the Seated Buddha which will return to India this year
  • Within this group of 22, 14 works from Art of the Past have insufficient or suspect provenance
  • 12 objects have satisfactory provenance documentation
  • 2 objects require further research
  • Recognition that treating the UNESCO Convention of 17 November 2020 as a watershed in respect of when an object left its country of origin is widely accepted in ethical codes, including in the United States and the United Kingdom
  • The interpretation of the Australian legislation – the Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act 1986 (Cth) – is consistent with the Gallery’s legal advice and the practical policies applied during the period of acquisition
  • The NGA needs to be constantly vigilant in its systems and procedures to assess and address risks, and needs to seek increased cooperation with other countries and museums to ensure acquisitions meet sound legal and ethical standards
  • The NGA’s display of its provenance research on a dedicated website is an important and valuable resource

Asian Art Provenance Project update:

In addition to the review, the NGA has taken further actions over the last year including:

  • Publishing 95 key objects on its provenance website, which continues to be updated

  • Compiling provenance histories for approximately 140 Indian paintings and drawings

  • An NGA representative travelling to India to meet with the Indian Ministry of Culture, National Museum New Delhi, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) and the French Institute of Pondicherry, which holds extensive photographic archives

  • NGA senior staff meeting with representatives from the ASI on a recent visit to Canberra (January 2016) to inspect the deaccessioned Seated Buddha

  • Initiating collaboration with colleagues, and also researching and addressing the issue of provenance with the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Art Gallery of South Australia, National Gallery of Victoria and Queensland Art Gallery

  • Conducting ongoing discussions with the Australian High Commission in New Delhi and the Indian High Commission in Canberra