India USA antiquity return amid PM Modi visit in 2023

Antiquity and its relevance in current Indo-Political Scenario

Do you know, On 17th July 2023, the United States on Monday send back 105 trafficked antiquities to India at the Indian Consulate in New York. Several others such stories regarding the homecoming of long stolen antiquities have been flashing regular on our news screens. These tales of lost and found creates a curiosity regarding the keyword, Antiquity. What does it mean? Where does it come from? And why Indian antiquities should be in India?

cave art representation

The word ‘antiquity’ comes Latin word antiquus, which means old or former. Cambridge dictionary describes word antiquity as “an object that was created a very long time ago”. It also describes “ancient history”.  According to International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, “Antiquities were the etiolated remnants of past ways of thinking, acting, and conveying knowledge that were ‘derived down’ uncritically into the present, shorn of their original meaning and functional coherence”.

India USA antiquity return amid PM Modi visit in 2023 USA to return antiquities to India

India has lost several significant national artifacts, first under British colonial rule and then through illegal smuggling activities. Many British individuals were fascinated by Indian culture, history, and art. They saw India as a land of exotic and ancient treasures, and they wanted to acquire these items for their personal collections or for display in museums. British colonial rule in India was driven by economic interests. Collecting and exporting valuable antiquities provided a source of revenue and profit. Some of these antiquities were sold to museums and collectors in Europe. Also, Removing Indian antiquities allowed the British to exercise control and domination over the Indian people. It was a way of asserting their authority and reinforcing the idea of British superiority over Indian culture and history. British archaeologists conducted excavations in India to uncover ancient artifacts and learn more about the country’s history. While some of this research was conducted for academic purposes, many artifacts ended up in British museums. Another reason was trophy hunting.  Some British officials and military personnel viewed Indian antiquities as trophies of conquest. They took artifacts and art as symbols of their triumph over India.

A Background to the occurrences amid Antiquity rerun

A Background Story

International Smuggling of the Historic Indian Artefacts can be motivated by several factors. Many Indian artifacts, especially those with historical or artistic significance, can fetch high prices in the international art market. Smugglers seek to profit from the sale of these items to collectors, museums, or private buyers. There is a global demand for Indian antiquities among art collectors and enthusiasts. This demand can drive the illegal trade, as individuals are willing to pay substantial sums for rare and valuable pieces. Some artifacts are stolen from poorly guarded archaeological sites, museums, or private collections. Inadequate security measures can make it easier for thieves to smuggle these items out of the country.

Corruption within the art trade and among law enforcement agencies can facilitate smuggling. Smugglers may bribe officials to turn a blind eye to their activities or to obtain forged export permits. In some cases, artifacts lack proper documentation or provenance records, making it easier for smugglers to pass them off as legally acquired items. Regions experiencing conflict or political instability may become hotspots for looting and smuggling, as the breakdown of law and order can make it easier for criminals to operate. The historical displacement of cultural artifacts during colonization or other historical events has left a legacy of smuggled items that may continue to circulate in the international market. Religious artifacts from India, such as sculptures and idols, are particularly sought after by collectors and religious communities around the world, which can drive smuggling activities.

The map shows Indian & USA on the map

According to Hindustan times, thousands of antiquities are stolen from India on yearly basis for the illicit international trade market. But, the most interesting thing to note is the formidable gap between artefact that has been “officially” declared missing and what is surfacing in global markets or being found in museum shelves and catalogues. Since Independence, 486 antiquities have been reported as missing from the 3,696 monuments protected and maintained by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).  Currently, Union Culture Minister G Kishan Reddy informed parliament that “a total of 324 antiquities have been brought back to India during 2003-2023”. This applauding number of retrieved antiquities is not even the tip of the iceberg in comparison to the huge number of antiques smuggled out from the country.

To safeguard and preserve the great cultural heritage of this nation, the Constitution of India explicitly makes two provisions. The first is in the Part-IV i.e., Directive Principles of State Policy in the form of Article 49 (Protection of monuments and places and objects of national importance) that directs the state to formulate laws and statutes for the protection of the cultural properties and save them from spoliation, disfigurement, destruction, removal, disposal or export. The second is in the Part IVA i.e., Fundamental Duties in the form of Article 51A (f) (value and preserve the rich heritage of our composite culture) that make people realize their responsibility towards the protection of traditional heritage and its by-products.


The other legislations consist of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010, that governs monuments and archaeological sites, while the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act (AATA) 1972, governs movable cultural properties consisting the antiquities and art treasures. Under the provisions of the latter, no individual is allowed to export any antiquity. The Indian Treasure Trove Act 1878 has its jurisdiction over the treasure troves. Custom Act, 1962 also prevents the export of antiquities. Besides, states and union territories too have their own legislations.

An analysis of the antiquity return deal between India & the USA

UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of ownership of Cultural Property, 1970, also helps in preventing illegal export or import of the cultural property.

The Archaeological Survey of India is making continuous efforts to retrieve illegally exported antiquities from foreign countries. Such returns have gained momentum in the recent past.

In 2006, the United States of America Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in New York returned a 9th century 250-pound stone idol that had been stolen from a temple in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh in 2000. In 2014 the US ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) returned three recovered sculptures. These included a 350-pound “Vishnu and Lakshmi” sandstone sculpture, dated 11th or 12th century, stolen from an Indian temple in 2009, a sandstone sculpture of Vishnu and Parvati, stolen from the Gadgach Temple in Atru, Rajasthan, and a black sandstone sculpture, depicting a Bodhisattva, dated 11th or early 12th century, from either the Indian State of Bihar or Bengal.

Now, the enticing question is why this push back? What value they hold, that such global efforts are happening to bring them back. The answer is very short and simple, that is, “History belongs to its geography”. When you take an artifact out of its geographical context, it tends to lose its emotional value. It may still hold the monetary worth, but the history, significance and legend associated with them get lost. Artifacts should not be taken out of their cultural context. It’s just like that last piece of puzzle whose existence matter with its context, that is, with other pieces. Another reason is the nationalism and sentimentality attached with these items. The best example of this phenomenon is the story of the world-famous Kohinoor Diamond, now a part of the British Crown Jewels. Reclaiming this jewel is still a dream for many in India. How do you comprehend the culture, history and richness of a place or a community? There are so many things which bring you nearer to them, and antiquities are one of them. They are a portrayal of attachment and the tradition that they convey with themselves. And, the bringing of these ancient antiquities back to the country, is a process to restore India’s pride and an active step to appreciate and acknowledge the historical past of our country.


Sanskriti Dixit Sanskriti Dixit (Research & Development Head)

About the Author

Sanskriti Dixit is an enthusiastic researcher with a desire for Indian History, Culture and Archaeology. She completed her BA (Hons) from Banaras Hindu University in 2020 and then, went on to pursue her MA from Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute in Ancient Indian History, Culture and Archaeology. She also holds a PG Diploma in Underwater Archaeology.
Her focus area revolves around Marine Archaeology, Ancient glass studies and role of women in ancient society. She completed her internship with National Institute of Oceanography and then, worked with INTACH, Bhopal chapter as Research Assistant. She is currently working as Research intern at Indo-Archaeology Research. She also published her article in Journal of History, Art and Archaeology, VOL 3 ISSUE 1 2023.




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