India treasure trove and Antiquities Abroad

There has been high profile official move to ensure the return of lost heritage from abroad. In October 2021, India successfully got back as many as 307 antiquities to India valued at nearly $4 million.

Definition of an antiquity:  

  • The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, define an antiquity” as “any coin, sculpture, painting, epigraph or other work of art or craftsmanship, any article, object or thing detached from a building or cave; any article object or thing illustrative of science, art, crafts, literature, religion, customs, morals or politics in bygone ages; any article, object or thing of historical interest that “has been in existence for not less than one hundred years”
  • For manuscript, record or other document which is of scientific, historical literary or aesthetic value, the duration is not less than seventy-five years.”

Related laws in India:

  • In India Item-67 of the Union List, Item- 12 of the State List, and Item-40 of the Concurrent List of the Constitution deal with the country’s heritage.
  • Before Independence, an Antiquities (Export Control) Act was passed in 1947 to ensure that “no antiquity could be exported without license.”
  • In 1958, The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act was enacted (AMASR Act).
  • The government enacted The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, which was implemented from April 1, 1976.

About the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act:

  • The Antiquities And Art Treasures ACT, 1972: This Act is enacted to regulate the export trade in antiquities and art treasures, to prevent smuggling of and fraudulent dealings in antiquities.
  • Important Sections:
  • Section.3: The Act states, “it shall not be lawful for any person, other than the Central Government or any authority or agency authorised by the Central Government in this behalf, to export any antiquity or art treasure.
  • Section.5: Antiquities to be sold only under a licence.
  • The Act also states ‘No person shall, himself or by any other person on his behalf, carry on the business of selling or offering to sell any antiquity except under and in accordance with the terms and conditions of a licence. The licence is granted by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
  • Section.14: Any person who owns controls or is in possession of any antiquity shall register the same before the registering officer and should obtain a certificate.

Section.25: If any person exports or attempts to export any antiquity or art treasure is liable for punishment for a term not less than 3 months which may extend to 3 years and with fine.

Archaeological Survey of India:

The first systematic research into the subcontinent’s history was conducted by the Asiatic Society, which was founded by the British Indologist William Jones on January 1784. The most important of the society’s achievements was the decipherment of the Brahmi script by James Prinsep in 1837. The Archaeological Survey of India was eventually formed in 1861 by a statute passed into law by Lord Canning with Alexander Cunningham as the first Archaeological Surveyor.

Present Status: The Archaeological Survey of India is an attached office of the Ministry of Culture. Under the provisions of the AMASR Act of 1958, the ASI administers more than 3650 ancient monuments, archaeological sites and remains of national importance. These can include everything from temples, mosques, churches, tombs, and cemeteries to palaces, forts, step-wells, and rock-cut caves. The Survey also maintains ancient mounds and other similar sites which represent the remains of ancient habitation.The ASI is headed by a Director General who is assisted by an Additional Director General, two Joint Directors General, and 17 Directors.  

International Convention:

  • The UNESCO 1970 Convention on the- Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property defined “cultural property as the property designated by countries having “importance for archaeology, prehistory history, literature, art or science.”
  • Following the UNESCO convention in 1970, guidelines have been issued globally for museums, which states that; ‘When acquiring an object, collected whether by purchase or donation or any other way, museums should exercise due diligence in verifying the object’s history. If a museum is acquiring – an object, the museum must verify whether the object was lawfully obtained, lawfully exported and/ or imported’.
  • The UNESCO 1970 declaration stated that, requesting Party shall furnish, at its expense, the documentation and other evidence necessary to establish its claim for recovery and return. The first thing in order to prove the ownership is the complaint (FIR) filed with the police.

Provenance of an antiquity: Provenance is the history of ownership and documentation of either purchased or acquired pieces.  An antique’s provenance can add substantial value, as it can attribute ownership in the past to a famous or important historical figure.

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