Sunday, April 25, 2010

Gandhara Galleries: "Statue-ary Rape"

Another gallery has come to my attention as of two days ago, well deserving of more intense scrutiny. The word "unscrupulous" comes immediately to mind! Gandhara Galleries, based out of an undisclosed location in Australia, boasts on their website of 20 years experience in the acquisition, appraisal, and sale of stone, wood, and bronze statuary from "Gandhara," that is Afghanistan to China to Southeast Asia, with a stated specialty in, and strong representation of, pieces from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar (Burma). On their website, they take pride in the fact that they've "developed a client list, who return to buy from us again and again," and boast about their offering of pieces "at the same price as the dealers, galleries, museums, and auction houses," which "can of course amount to considerable savings."

Yet again, authenticity is emphasized above all else, and extensive description of the art historical background to Gandhara region sculpture is provided, with emphasis placed upon the uniqueness, and time-consuming manufacturing methods, of every piece offered. To whit: "All pieces are unique, individually hand-crafted by master sculptures using ancient techniques and driven by Buddhist religious ideology and merit, carved and sculptured for religious purposes. Bronzes were produced using the lost wax method, a highly innovative process requiring great skill, experience and patience." Despite the underlying truth that such sculptures (and indeed all artifacts traded as "antiquities," to one degree on another) would've been made with refined and well-practiced techniques, it is statements such as these that directly appeal to the "Connoisseur's View" guiding those who would repeatedly purchase antiquities on the global black market, especially something as bulky, difficult to smuggle, and expensive as complete statues.

Let's talk about the issues of authenticity and provenance as displayed (or not) on this site. First of all, I highlight the following: "Please note: all pieces for sale through Gandhara are in Australia at the time of advertising for sale, unless stated otherwise" (italics mine). The heyday of the wholesale looting and removal of temple frescoes and statuary (or just the heads from said statues), at least in Cambodia, occurred in the 1980s/early 1990s, although statuary looting incidents were known during French colonial days as early as 1924. With more stringent APSARA (local Cambodian Heritage police) and U.N. protection now in place around the major temple complexes, tourism has greatly increased, as have collaborations between Cambodian, regional, and Western authorities to implement new legal and educational measures. As a result, confiscations and apprehensions have begun to occur. Evidence from both Gandhara galleries and others, such as BC Galleries, suggests such apprehensions are nowhere near enough.

If the majority of the pieces left the country many years ago, even pre-1970s, and have been moving from legitimate owner to legitimate owner since then, then where's the evidence up front? Why no provenance history (even as suspicious as "private collection," "Old collection," or "Ex Christies or Sothebys") for all of them? It is readily apparent to anyone who views their website that what they offer for sale could never have 'surfaced' "accidentally" as a "field find." Regardless of when the destruction occurred, or if any actual digging was required to get the piece out of the ground, the mere fact that they had to be located, transported, packaged and shipped is proof positive that these artifacts are 'victims' of organized efforts. I point out again that their own website only puts them in business for 20 years!

Where were all these pieces hiding before that if they weren't instead taken out of their source countries recently? I found a scant few examples of artifacts with minimally stated provenance identifying it as part of a previous auction (e.g. this c. 12th century Naga balustrade), or this pre-Angkorian head of Vishnu, and these bronze statuettes (appraised, but purchased in the "late 1970s" From whom?). The catalog entries for many objects mention published sources to check and similar examples sold at auction elsewhere, yet even the robbery of monasteries as an act of looting to provide the market with, for example, these colossal Lao bronze Buddha statues, is unsurprisingly completely ignored. In countries currently experiencing warfare and ethnic strife, such as Afghanistan in this case, the antiquities trade can operate all the more openly.

Note how almost none of the objects have stated prices (except for a few small items, such as these coins), bur are rather "P.O.A." (price on application). At the same time, on the Guarantee page, they state "We are constantly offering quality Gandharan and Asian artifacts at extremely competitive prices, a fantastic opportunity for private collectors and people interested in ancient objects to acquire truly unique works of art, all of which are almost 2000 years old, only previously believed to be accessible to museums and art galleries." So why not state your prices upfront? On what basis do they determine the price of the priceless art/artifacts they sell?

Further adding to my sense of an underlying "caveat emptor" (buyer beware) attitude is that, for all the emphasis they place on statements of authenticity (highlighting soil accretion, weathering, damage, and a few T.L. dated objects), a disclaimer is provided stating that a customer can return the object within five days (in its original packaging) if it's not found to match the description. "After this initial five day period any goods you wish to return must be accompanied by a written evaluation from an internationally recognized dealer of Asian Antiques stating that the item(s) purchased are not authentic pieces as described within our description." Why offer this service at all? Have they themselves been fleeced by in-country middle-men before? Just who would be acceptable to provide the second opinion and appraisal needed? That segment of the professional academic archaeological/art historical community with the relevant specialization for pieces such as these isn't exactly large... All things considered, I fear that in this respect at least, they're doing 'honest business.'

I will close this expose post with description of what might be Gandhara gallery's most galling affront to heritage laws and humanity's shared past of any I came across; namely the advertised sale of fragments of the original Bamiyan Buddhas! As discussed on their "Talaban destruction of ancient Buddhist Art in Afghanistan" page, they first 'set the scene' by describing the role of central Afghanistan as a major cross-roads (when once the Kingdom of Kushan), with "one of the world's greatest archaeological treasures;" namely, the Bamiyan Buddhas, at its heart. Lamenting a few previous attempts by Muslim individuals (the "fanatical trader Yaqoub") and groups (the Hezb-i-Whadat and Taliban political parties) to destroy these and other related statues both during antiquity, and during the recent/ongoing wars. The description closes with the final destruction of the Bamiyans, to the horror of the international community.

The very last sentence in the text shocked me. "In the days that followed we were offered a number of pieces mainly stucco, in order to preserve these rare historical artifacts we now offer them for sale on our website in Gandhara Afghan galleries." Although nothing on offer in the relevant galleries is specifically identified as formerly part of the Bamiyan Buddhas, what the above makes clear is that the Afghan pieces for sale would almost certainly have left the country after the Taliban resurgence c. 2001! Although no antiquities related M.O.U. exists between Afghanistan and major demand countries yet, an IUCN Redbook has since 2006...yet, here these artifacts are...languishing in some undisclosed warehouse somewhere, rotated on and off line until they're bought, forgotten about, or perhaps, someday, returned to where they belong. Constant vigilance!


  1. Damien, I purchased 2 Buddhas around 2001 - a wooden Laotian provincial Buddha (antique and a Burmese head. The head was purchased from the now defunct K7antiques. I was told by its proprietor that the head was found on the ground in Myanmar, covered by thick undergrowth...hmmm. I was told soon after I purchased this piece that he or she apparently took money from various people without ever sending merchandise and then vanished. The head has a large gash in it which may suggest it was looted from a temple as people have suggested to me. However others have said it may not be authentic either as 99% of the stuff that comes out of Asia since the late 90's are fakes. I paid approximately $300 for it. The Laotian piece was listed as 17th-19thc and I am certain it is authentic as I have never seen another even similar to it, and the sellers have a fantastic reputation as well, it seems at least. I have never purchased another Buddha since then. But I do find the Gandhara Buddhas particularly beautiful. Of course the prices most galleries list are way beyond me at this time. I imagine some of the looted pieces from the Iraq museum were probably damaged or destroyed in transit from the museum and are still in Iraq. What do you think? I am in the process of reading - Casualties of War: The Looting of the Iraq Museum on Take Care - Michael

  2. Well done!
    I was looking for a plaster cast of a Ghandara Buddha statue I cam across the Australian site you describe (and your post), something seemed so in the world would they get these items?

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts.