Article | Blog | Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav, Ministry of Culture, Government of India


India Against Illicit Smuggling of Cultural Property

By : India Against Illicit Smuggling of Cultural Property

March 29, 2022

The cultural property of a country is a testament to its history and heritage and should belong to the nation. Illicit trade and smuggling of artefacts have plagued the art and culture market of the world. Despite UNESCO’s 1970 Convention “Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property”, the issue has been escalating. Even amidst this widespread problem, India, under the leadership of Hon’ble Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was successful in bringing back 157 antiquities from the United States of America during his visit there in September 2021. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden shared their common agreement on the issue of illicit trading of artefacts and antiquities and put an end to this.

The antiquities that were returned range from metalware idols to stoneware sculptures and terracotta objects. Most of the objects date somewhere between 11th – 14th CE while few are older. 71 of these objects hold cultural significance while the remaining hold religious significance – Hinduism 60, Buddhist 16, and Jain 9. The religious motifs include sculptures of Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva as Dakshinamurti, Surya on his chariot etc. from Hinduism; Standing Buddha, Bodhisattva and Tara from Buddhism; Jain Tirthankar, Padmasana Tirthankar, Jaina Choubisi from Jainism. Other antiquities include a one-and-a-half-meter bas relief panel of Revanta (Hindu deity) made of sandstone, an exquisite bronze Nataraja from the 12th Century, 56 terracotta objects and a sword and a sheath from the 18th Century. These objects narrate a story of India’s heritage and culture.

In 2022, the Australian Government repatriated 29 antiquities to India. These artefacts are broadly categorized into the following themes – Shiva and his disciples, Lord Vishnu and his forms, portraits, worshipping Shakti, Jain tradition and decorative objects.

This magnanimous effort by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to bring back the antiquities that were lost to illegal trade has been globally applauded. As pointed out by UNESCO, this has also underlined the fact that illicit trade of cultural properties is not an individual problem of a country but an issue at the global level. The 1970 Convention solely will not tackle this issue, it should be the collective efforts of the governments, societies, communities, and the people to spread awareness regarding the importance of national and cultural heritage and how to safeguard them. The objects must also be well-documented, catalogued, and digitized to create a permanent database of the nation’s heritage. Another crucial step towards eliminating the problem is preventing the formation and expansion of illegitimate groups that harbour this trade.