Former Managing Director Sotheby’s India, Gaurav Bhatia decodes Return and Restitution in the world of Artefacts

Gaurav Bhatia sotheby's former MD
Gaurav Bhatia sotheby's former MD

Gaurav Bhatia Sotheby’s Ex MD expounds how, “Beyond the hassle of returning stolen objects, mutual respect to cultural legacy, friendship and nation ties are indeed the bests that contemporary culture can achieve from Return and Restitution of stolen art.”

Throughout history and civilizations, the lending of artwork has been an ongoing affair- nations have regularly shown interests in each other’s culture and as well relished the beauty that artworks across boundaries have in their own unique ways of expression, techniques, motives and expertise. While cultural heritage has been a crowning glory in the field of art and luxury, it is not startling today to find an expensive piece of African art hanging in the galleries of India, a Paris Museum with ancient Egyptian reliefs, or Indian deities finding room in museums across the world.

However, what comes down as a tone of bricks is when these pieces of art belonging to different cultures are acquired from their country of origin by trickery and deceit- by loots, plunders, steals or as much as being bought from smugglers and scam dealers.  Notable Luxury expert and an avid art collector himself, Mr. Gaurav Bhatia, the former MD of luxury business houses like Sotheby’s India throws light, “What further escalates the rant and rave is because these misplaces pieces of art become the symbolics that hold grim histories of colonialization, oppression and wrong-doings from the past. Deeper sentiments of reparations and recompence back propositions when the country of origin demands its cultural figurative back.”

A news making headlines today is of The National Gallery of Australia which has made an upstanding announcement of returning Indian works of art from its Asian art collection that it had brought from an Indian dealer, later alleged for running a global smuggling ring. The Gallery has decided to return as many as 14 pieces that trace back to Indian roots- including six bronze or stone sculptures, a brass processional standard, a painted scroll and six photographs. The former Sotheby’s MD Gaurav Bhatia notes, “The Australian National Gallery’s stance in repatriation is evident and loud- not only have they returned art pieces back to their origin grounds but have introduced a new provenance assessment framework that looks through evidences in relation to an aspect of a work of art’s history in terms of its legal and ethical backs. “

As an interesting example of Return and Restitution, in 2008 the Australian National Gallery had spent 5 million dollars on a beautiful Chola bronze sculpture of Shiv Nataraja that it bought from the “Art of the Past” gallery. Later when the Indian legal system found that most items of the gallery were stolen- the Dancing Shiva being half-inched from a south-Indian temple, the then-prime minister of Australia-Tony Abbott handed back the statue to the Indian Prime Minister in 2014, reinstating the sense of cultural responsibility that one nation should dearly hold for another.

Mr. Gaurav Bhatia Sotheby’s Ex Managing Director , explains Return and Restitution by highlighting the core difference in what these terms mean, “The UNESCO defines return to be applicable for cultural objects that have been lost following a foreign occupation or an invasion wherein the object was shifted from its country of origin.” He adds, “While on the other hand, Restitution is applicable for pieces that have not necessarily crossed borders of its country of origin but have disappeared following an illicit appropriation, fraud or scam.”

The UNESCO takes active stance in the cause of stolen or misplaced cultural motifs to be returned to its owner. The body has laws that give strength to any UNESCO Member State or Associate Member to be able to request return or restitution as per its 1981 curated- Standard Form Concerning Requests for Return or Restitution. When all other negotiations fail, a request for the matter is to be raised six months before the next session of the Intergovernmental Committee in order for it to be worked upon.

The Maison’s CEO Gaurav Bhatia adds, “While the legal framework pertaining to cases of return and restitution were relatively less robust until the UNESCO decided to step in- creating an Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation. The cause finds better clarity today with UNESCO demarcation of the three essential components of any cultural object- the protection and security of restituted artworks, the supplying of artworks, and the transmission of objects.”

However, Return and Restitution of artwork is still in the moot point today, with differences in opinions arising on both parts to favor or argument against the idea.

Expounding on the positives attached, Mr. Bhatia, the Ex-MD of Sotheby’s says “The notion of identity that attaches itself to cultural objects make them symbolics of communities, culture, time and geography. It is sheer respect that one community values the heritage in another when it tried to extend hand to find, proclaim and preserve what belongs to them.”

A great deal of propositions however, have something very different to say- Many who do not favor Restitution and Return present facts on how nearly all museums would go empty if all the artwork they possessed had to be returned to their country of origin. The modern world is an amalgamate of cultures in a way that we thrive best in our multiplicities- artwork from around the globe in international museums give people the taste of diversity that best fits the modern cosmopolitan.

The debates have powerful propositions like how mere restitution can never nearly be close to reparation for the grim histories of colonization and even how countries who buy expensive objects from alleged fraudsters do not purposefully bow to scam- this indeed makes “two-innocents” that deserve indemnity while return and restitution only favors one party. Beyond the hassle of returning stolen objects, mutual respect to cultural legacy, friendship and nation ties are indeed the bests that contemporary culture can achieve from Return and Restitution of stolen art.