A lawsuit filed in New York State court last week could provide one of the strongest disincentives yet to dealing in looted cultural objects. Subhash Kapoor‘s gallery in New York, Art of the Past, has been sued for a laundry list of private law violations; including “fraud, rescission, unjust enrichment, contractual indemnity, and breach of contract” based on the sale of this bronze statue known as Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Nataraja). The plaintiff is the Australian gallery which purchased this work in 2008.
This lawsuit is exactly what should happen when a purchaser with clean hands purchases a work of art from a dealer who knew that a work of art was looted or stolen. I’ve argued before that acquisitions like this defraud the legitimate trade in works of art, and also corrupt our understanding of history.
Chasing Aphrodite asks:
The NGA lawsuit, to our knowledge, is unprecedented. American museums and private collectors have returned hundreds of looted objects to Italy, Greece, Turkey, India, Cambodia and other countries in recent years. In nearly all those cases, dealers had provided standard warranties guaranteeing good title to the objects. And yet not one museum or collector had filed a similar lawsuit…that we know of.
So why haven’t lawsuits like this occurred with more regularity? Here’s why I think they have been rare. They should be happening every time looted art is repatriated. As any first year law student learns, if someone sells you stolen property, every legal system allows you to bring an action against the launderer of stolen property. But this has not happened in the antiquities trade for a couple reasons. First, many curators and museum officials had too much knowledge of the illicitness of objects they were acquiring. A lawsuit like this would have embarrased institutions like the Getty or the Met or the MFA in Boston by raising uncomfortable question about what due diligence was taken before an acquisition. In this case, it seems as if the National Gallery of Australia is comfortable in defending its due diligence procedures to a court. The NGA alleges in its complaint that it undertook due diligence procedures, while also relying on the warranties given by Art of the Past. But the NGA asked the Art loss register if the statue was stolen, examined letters from the previous owner of the statue, consulted the ‘Tamil Nadu Police website’, checked the records produced by the Archaeological Survey of India, and finally consulted with a bronze expert in India who supported the acquisition.
Perhaps another reason that a suit like this is unique, is the secret nature of the art trade itself. Buyers and sellers are anonymous. But that is changing. When you can trace the path of material through the various purchasers, the market for illicit material shrinks. And that is a very good thing, and why we should all watch this suit in New York closely.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF AUSTRALIA v. ART OF THE PAST INC, Docket No. 650395/2014 (N.Y. Sup Ct. Feb. 06, 2014)