Licensed to Loot

On 9 April 2008, Sotheby’s are auctioning a Sikh armour plate in their ‘Arts of the Islamic World’ sale. It is just one artifact of many in the category, but the one that has caused the most stir, mainly for religious reasons more than heritage ones. The religious issue leaves me cold, but, oh, to see our heritage artifacts over there….yet again….

Ever since the Battle of Plassey in 1757, when Robert Clive of the East India Company defeated Siraj-ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, and gained control of the country’s major resources, there’s been plenty plundering of India’s treasures.

The advantages from the Plassey turning point landed the Company nearly £2.5 million and Robert Clive a tidy sum of nearly £300,000. And this was just the start.

Looting a conquered nation wasn’t a new trend – nor has it gone out of fashion as we saw with the looting of the Baghdad Museum in recent times – but the exceptional thing with India was that the British stuck around to do it for nearly 300 years.

And the fruits of that loot crop up now in prestigious Western auction houses and often go for millions of dollars. To give an example, Robert Clive’s descendants reaped a fortune from his gains a few years back. Christie’s auctioned off “a jewelled Mughal flask, made in jade and studded with bands of emeralds and ruby flowers set in gold, which was once part of the royal collection at the Imperial Court in Delhi, and is now valued at over £1m” and also a hookah encrusted with sapphires which is expected to fetch £50,000 to £80,000, a decorated dagger which should sell for £35,000 to £50,000, a jade bowl and a flywhisk”.

To understand our feelings about this sale here in India, consider how you would feel if someone stripped your house, sold your precious things at a public auction and gleefully recounted the very high price they got. What would you do? Applaud their windfall?

Or if we had defaced the Buckingham Palace or the White House, would you come visit and make polite noises about how neatly we had gouged away the embellishments?

The Sikh armour is priced at £10,000-£12,000, but, with Sotheby’s helpfully mentioning a possible connection to Guru Gobind Singh, it could go for a significantly higher figure.

Sotheby’s haven’t revealed how the armour plate reached the UK. If it was illegally taken from India and this can be proved, we would really like to have it back.

There is a trend currently of returning Nazi-looted artwork. By that same logic, why can’t we have the British-looted Indian artifacts back too?

Every time I bring this up, I get condescending arguments-

• The artifacts belong to the world and civilization is not a civilization unless shared with others.
• The artifacts were taken in order to preserve them for posterity.
• The artifacts are safer and better preserved in foreign hands.
• History shouldn’t be rewinded.
• Museums are enhanced by cultural variety.

I’m sorry, they don’t work; except to show up double standards.

Still, on the other hand, since I’m more a factual than nationalistic person, I must state that -

The British rule did have its positive moments and they did desist from outright looting now and again. All was not got by legitimate conquest; some was actually legitimately purchased or received as a gift.

And the question is can it be proved at this point what was stolen and what was bought/received in gift in a Court of Law?