Historical and Archaeological Findings in News

Antiquities abroad: What Indian, international laws say


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Antiquities

Mains level: Not Much


Central idea: Indian authorities are pushing for restitution of stolen antiquities and ancient religious artefacts.

What is an antiquity?

  • An antiquity is defined by the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 as-
  1. Any coin, sculpture, painting, epigraph or other work of art or craftsmanship;
  2. Any article, object or thing detached from a building or cave;
  3. Any article, object or thing illustrative of science, art, crafts, literature, religion, customs, morals or politics in bygone ages;
  4. Any article, object or thing of historical interest that has been in existence for not less than one hundred years.
  • For manuscripts, records or other documents of scientific, historical, literary or aesthetic value, this duration is not less than seventy-five years.

What do international conventions say?

  • 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.”
  • The Convention further stated that “the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property is one of the main causes of the impoverishment of the cultural heritage of the countries of origin of such property and that international co-operation constitutes one of the most efficient means of protecting each country’s cultural property.”
  • The General Assembly of the UN and the UN Security Council in 2015 and 2016 also raised concerns about the illicit international traffic of cultural items and related offenses.
  • An INTERPOL report in 2019 indicated that almost 50 years after the UNESCO convention, the illicit international traffic of cultural items and related offenses is increasingly prolific.

What do Indian laws say?

  • 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.
  • The Antiquities (Export Control) Act was passed in April 1947 to ensure that no antiquity could be exported without a license.
  • The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act was enacted in 1958.
  • The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972 (AATA) was implemented on April 1, 1976, after an uproar in Parliament over the theft of a bronze idol from Chamba and some important sandstone idols from other places.
  • Under the AATA, it is not lawful for any person other than the Central Government or any authorized agency to export any antiquity or art treasure, and no person shall carry on the business of selling or offering to sell any antiquity except under and in accordance with the terms and conditions of a license granted by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

What is the provenance of an antiquity?

  • Provenance includes the list of all owners from the time the object left its maker’s possession to the time it was acquired by the current owner.

How is ownership proved?

  • The requesting party needs to furnish, at its expense, the documentation and other evidence necessary to establish its claim for recovery and return, according to the UNESCO 1970 declaration.
  • In India, the first thing in order to prove ownership is the complaint (FIR) filed with the police. In many cases, there is no FIR for missing antiquities.
  • However, other proof such as details mentioned by reputed scholars in research papers can also be helpful.

How to check for fake antiquities?

  • Every person who owns, controls or is in possession of any antiquity shall register such antiquity before the registering officer and obtain a certificate in token of such registration under section 14(3) of the AATA.
  • The National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities, launched in March 2007, has registered

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