Collecting Indian Antiquities: Know the Rules

With more than 2,000 years of constant cultural milieu, India is a very rich country when it comes to antiquities. It boasts a vast array of stone sculpture, terra cotta, objects made of stone, bone and ivory, jewelry, woodwork, seal, medals, coins, epigraphs, paintings, murals, rock art, manuscripts, textiles and other items that are considered valuable and getting even more valuable by the day.

With collectibles and antiques ruling the roost in the West, the Asian market is not far behind. Although Indian antiquities are in great demand, most have been taken out of the country illegally.

Prior to independence, many antiquities were spirited away by the rulers of India. A number of them were gifted to the British rulers by the erstwhile maharajahs, rulers of princely states and rich people to curry favors. Today, many of these pieces are in private collections and museums outside of India.

Antique ax

Antique ax

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In modern India, people are unaware of the real value and importance of the antiques. Most of the popular collectibles are furniture, jewelry, ivory carvings, paintings, antique tiger skins, metal and stone statues, etc. and other collectibles of royal families. These are often sold by the descendants.

Innumerable insignificant forts and palaces still have hordes of heirlooms of princely states that existed before India’s independence in 1947. Also, the temple tradition of India runs for hundreds of years. The descendants and caretakers of these institutions have been selling heirlooms and other antiquities both legally and illegally for cash.

17th-century statue of Vishnu

17th-century statue of Vishnu

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The nouveau riche has become the nouveau collectors in India. But the source of collectibles remains flea markets, select legal auctions and other private collections.

According to the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, under the constitution of India, antiquities such as coins, sculpture, epigraph or anything that has been in existence for the past 75 to 100 years has to be registered with the government. This is especially true if someone wants to trade in these items. A license is required for such trade. Rampant corruption, extensive bureaucracy and red tape make it extremely difficult to get a license.

A genuine collector faces many legal hassles for the registration of antiquities. And as the laws are stringent, corruption is rampant. It is sad to say that circumnavigating the law is an easier option and with the deep-rooted culture and heritage in India, not even 10 percent of the heirlooms and antiquities are registered with the government. It is simpler for people who possess heirlooms or the people who want to collect them to bypass the law.

Ahma girl in Bengal antique photo

Ahma girl in Bengal antique photo

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Because of this, one does not find references to private collectors or their collections. Most of the antiquities in India, which are registered, are in public or private museums. Most of the temples and royal-family collections are also unrecorded.

Thus, when it comes to the rules of collecting in India, families having some heirloom or any antiquity want to keep them to themselves and do not want to bring them to the attention of the government.
Even anything dug up or excavated on a private property, if considered an antique, will be taken over by the state.

With constant demand from abroad for Indian antiques, manuscripts, coins and other highly coveted collectibles from abroad and high corruption within the museums and temple officials in India, it is common knowledge that rampant pilferage takes place to satiate that demand. It should be no surprise that the high demand leads to pilferage, looting, smuggling and carrying away of national treasures.

Indo-Persian matchlock gun

Indo-Persian matchlock gun

Matchlock gun closeup

Matchlock gun closeup

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With the growing numbers of newly rich people in India and an awareness of investment in antiques by them, it is hoped that the framework of rules for collections, exchange and exhibitions are revised, making more people aware and proud of their heritage while still transacting the collections freely, either exchanging or selling.

Until that happens, unscrupulous individuals will make antique finds and objects a hush- hush job, and museums, rural temples and old forts that dot the country will remain a target for smugglers and looters.

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