Earlier this month, it was reported that Canada was returning a 900-year-old sandstone statue to India. This was done with all the necessary pomp and ceremony, with each nation’s prime minister more than ready for a dual photo op with the piece. Of course it represented much more than mere cultural restitution: as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated, cultural relations between Canada and India have “deepened” as a result of the statue’s return. And this wouldn’t be the first time a country’s leader cashed in on the political capital involved in ‘doing the right thing’: Australia’s PM returned two stolen Indian idols to Modi last September.
It is presumed that the statue found in Canada had been stolen from one of the temples of Khajuraho. For anyone who knows the features of this somewhat lewd UNESCO world heritage site, the name may prompt a mischievous smile (this particular sculpture seems to be a tad tamer than her counterparts still attached to the temples). But what is most interesting here is that there was no initial evidence of where exactly the statue came from, nor of when it was taken from the temple. Only after investigation last year by the Archaeological Society of India was anyone able to confirm its authenticity and origin.
The object had been detained back in 2011 during the import clearance process under Canada’s Cultural Property Export and Import Act (CPEIA), having entered Canada without proper export documentation from its country of origin. It fell within the coverage of the CPEIA because it had been shipped directly from India and therefore the export occurred after the enactment of the CPEIA in 1985 (not to mention the the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property), which is critical for the Act to apply.
The initial lack of knowledge as to the site of origin is interesting. In other cases, seizing cultural property without knowing where it came from could be seen as a ‘shoot first, ask questions later’ approach. In the context of the ongoing Sevso Treasure dispute, a New York court had once upon a time refused to restitute the Treasure because none of the claimant countries (Hungary, the former Yugoslavia and Lebanon) could prove for certain where it had originated. (It is now generally accepted that the late Roman Sevso Treasure came from the region of Lake Balaton in Hungary.)
In any event, the Khajuraho return was largely trumpeted by the media. However, one question still lingers. Which poor soul is now out of pocket for having lost the thing?