“The great art robbery”

Business Standard on October 15, 2011 released the following:

“Kishore Singh / New Delhi

News that two paintings by Nicholas Roerich stolen from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute were auctioned recently in London became widely reported. The IARI said it would investigate the missing paintings, trustees cried out for an audit of Roerich’s works, there has been the suggestion that CBI and Interpol will look into the matter. Yet, despite claims that the paintings fetched $2 million, no one seems to know the auction house where the sale was conducted, no buyers have been mentioned, and no one knows who (stupidly — if they were indeed “stolen”) consigned them for auction.

This is not the first time that Roerich’s paintings have been stolen. In 2009, two small works valued at $30,000 were reported missing from the Nicholas Roerich Museum in New York. It was suggested that the Russian art market might have been responsible for the episode.

The Russian-born Roerich is widely acknowledged as an intellectual giant in the land of his birth, and though he is respected in India where he lived for the last two decades of his life (from 1927 to 1947), he is perhaps somewhat less regarded despite a museum of his works in Naggar, Himachal. A prolific artist in his lifetime, many of these later works deal with the Himalayas — his Lao-Tse was auctioned in 2006 for a record $2.2 million.

Such prices alone could be a reason for the theft of Roerich’s works, given the poor security at many of our institutions, but one would hardly expect them to surface at auctions. Art does go unaccounted in India, as much from willful negligence as for culpable complicity, but this is as yet a small enough percentage, probably because markets for the sale of high-value art are limited. Collectors of a certain kind would rather shell out cheaply for fakes than for pricier stolen paintings, given that their visibility — a necessary condition for buying art in the first place — could invite unwanted, unwelcome attention.

Much more art gets stolen in the West because collectors are willing to risk the secret pleasure that stolen but cherished art brings them, while the principal concern in India remains a problem of fakes. But the missing Roerichs are a pointer to the possibility of a growing nexus between those familiar with the value of art gifted to or purchased by institutions that, for reasons of bureaucratic indifference and the lack of auditing processes, remain neglected by those who do not concern themselves with modern art.

Till a few decades ago, artists gave away works to select institutions, including hotels, either inexpensively, or gratis, for the prestige it brought them. Today, when the value of art has soared, it is these institutions that must be held accountable — and auditable — for the art that they have cared so little about. Sometimes buildings have been sold lock, stock and art, even in the private sector, with the new buyer consigning the old art unknowingly to kabariwallahs; as often, renovations have resulted in commissioned works being replaced by shinier but inferior works — the result of organisations not taking the trouble to document and value their art collections. As information on the purloined Roerichs trickles in, institutions must attempt to ensure that such neglect, and thefts, remain the exception rather than the rule.”

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