Theft of Artifacts & Antiquities, Domestic Laws and International Conventions

Why curbing theft of Artifacts is important, what are the legal provisions in place and why are they ineffective? What can we learn from other countries?

Every year INTERPOL issues alert on most-wanted art objects stolen and illicitly traded across the world and invariably Indian artifacts find a mention.

Theft Of Artifacts: Why Is It Important Issue?

  • Global Financial Integrity (GFI) Report says that Illegal trade of artifacts and antiquities is one of the world’s most Profitable Criminal Enterprises ($6 Billion dollar)
    • GFI is a Washington based non-profit, research, advisory, and advocacy organization, which produces analyses of illicit financial flows. It was founded by Raymond baker.
  • UNESCO recently confirmed that ISIS is trafficking in art and antiquities to finance its operations, and earning approximately $1 million of revenue a day.
  • In 2015, Operation Hidden Idol was launched by USA’s Homeland Securities Investigation Department which to recover and repatriate looted around 2600 Artifacts and Antiquities by Subhash Kapoor worth an estimated 650 Crores ($100 million)
    • A Chola era sculpture of Shiva and Parvati (“Festival Bronze statute”) stolen from Tamil Nadu and smuggled into the US was eventually returned to India.
  • International Art market is a $50 billion market that is almost entirely unregulated


What does a country stand to lose when its Antiquities are stolen?

  • Double Jeopardy due to illicit removal of cultural objects
  • Irreplaceable: Stolen antiquities are irreplaceabe by themselves
  • Loss of Heritage: Crucial historical information and legacy about the artifact and its period is lost

What are the Legal Provisions available with India to address such theft?

  • Antiquities And Art Treasures Act 1972
  • Indian Treasure Trove Act 1949
  • National Mission On Monuments And Antiquities– it creates a National Register On Artifacts that are unprotected
  • National Manuscript Mission for Documenting Heritage
  • Bilateral agreements to recover smuggled artifacts
    • For instance- Australia will return Nataraja Idol (Bronze) under its own Protection of Movable Cultural Heritage Act
    • It was originally from Sapthakanni Temple in Sripuranthan (under Chola times)
    • Australia is also a signatory to a UNESCO convention on the illicit import, export and transfer of ownership of cultural property


International Treaties and Conventions that protect Artifacts and Antiquities:


#1. Protection under Hague Convention (1954)

  • It provides for protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict
  • Rules to protect cultural goods during armed conflicts such as monuments, art, archaeological sites, scientific collections, manuscripts, books and other objects of artistic, historical or archaeological interest to ensure the cultural legacy doesn’t get affected during war.
  • The Hague Convention was adopted in the wake of the severe cultural destruction that occurred during the Second World War
  • Convention defines a Protective Sign (“Blue Shield”) to facilitate the Identification of protected cultural property during an armed conflict

#2. Protection under Geneva Convention on War

  • Establishes the standards of international law for the humanitarian treatment of war.
  • Under Article 53 of Protection Of Cultural Objects And Of Places Of Worship in the Event of Armed Conflict– it provides for protection of UNESCO world heritage sites

#3. Under UNESCO Convention (1970) on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property

  • Circulation of artifacts are prohibited under this UNESCO treaty
  • India is a signatory to this treaty

Why have Legal Provisions in India been ineffective?

  1. Indian Treasure Trove Act (1949)
    • This act is too obsolete, was last amended in 1949
    • Because any object worth more than (mere) 10 Rs found hidden in soil is regarded as “Treasure”!
    • Barriers to Good Samaritans: Person who dutifully reports the find is often made to go through Cumbersome procedure
  2. Antiquities And Art Treasures Act
    • Under this act- antiquities in private possession must be registered and person trading in them must get a license.
    • But improper enforcement of law, and lack of punitive action on traders without licences has made a mockery of this law
  3. Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has been criticized by a 2013 CAG report for failing to even recognize few artifacts set to return for repatriation by USA and Australian authorities
    • That ASI has no policy for management of antiquities. Storage conditions of these antiquities in monuments like Safdarjung’s Tomb and Purana Qila are pathetic.
  4. Our laws inhibit Community Participation
    • Local community is usually the first respondant to path-breaking discoveries
    • Many a cases such as recent Rakhigarhi Excavation (which went on to become largest IVC site) was first reported on Farming land by local workers and farmers
    • In absence of incentives to identify and report such Treasure Troves to authorities, they suffer irreparable damage as people treat them as derelicts

Solutions: Lessons From Other Countries

(i) Community Participation

  • Best practices in England and Wales have shown remarkable success in reducing theft of artefacts
  • Portable Antiquities Scheme: Encourages local communities to voluntarily report and registr discovery of artefacts with help of experts
  • Resulting database is placed in the public domain
  • India can learn from such laws and adapt features to suit Indian Conditions

(ii) Enhanced And Dedicated Policing

  • Dedicated Art Police in Italy (country with highest UNESCO Natural and Cultural Heritage sites)
  • In 2009 itself, they recovered 60,000 pieces of looted antiquities and helped reduce art theft by 15%

(iii) India should learn from USA’s Operation Hidden Idol

  • India should work on a mission mode to recover theft of its own artifacts by launching a policy for management of Antiquities and make ASI accountable for it.
  • It includes checking catalogues at international auction houses, posting news of such theft on websites, posting information about theft in the International Art Loss Registry, sending photographs of stolen objects electronically to dealers and auction houses and scholars in the field.

What about Colonial Possessions of artifacts?

  • Yes, some argue that our heritage such as Koh-i-noor diamond and others in Western Museums is nothing but illegal acquisition.
  • Hence, that too comes under the mandate of Convention On The Means Of Prohibiting And Preventing The Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of which India and UK both are signatories

We shall address topic of Colonial Repatriation in detail in the next blog of this series. Keep checking this collection


Published with inputs from Amar 

By B2B

Revisiting the Basics

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments