Asian Civilisations Museum says that the Uma they purchased was done with due diligence; You say po-tay-toe, they say po-tah-toe?

Asian Civilisations Museum has defended the purchase of the USD650,000 Uma bronze (click here). According to the website, ACM “said it acquired the Uma Parmeshvari sculpture according to strict procedures governed by international standards, as well as according to the National Heritage Board Policy.”

Well, if the National Heritage Board’s policy for artefact-acquisition is really so strict, should this have happened in the first place? Why? Provenance. ‘Provenance’ is simply the history of the artifact; not so much when the artifact was made/used, but how it came to be owned by different owners until it has been offered for sale. The longer the artifact has been in private hands, the more ‘legal’ the artefact, as it predates anti-smuggling conventions. In ACM’s case, their defence that they did their best to ensure that the Uma sculpture is ‘legit’ will be challenging to defend in court; according to the Hindu newspaper (click here), the sculpture was only stolen and taken out of south India less than 10 years ago. When purchasing the artifact, it appears that either ACM did not want to delve too deep into the sculpture’s (recent) past (so as to be convinced that ignorance was bliss), or that the USA dealer provided a dubious provenance that ended convincing the buyer. All over the world, museums have been taking more and more precautions regarding artifact-provenance, may it be due to ethics or legal implications (click here to read about the measures some American museums are taking).

No matter how the USA dealer is eventually dealt with, this is truly a case of caveat emptor or ‘buyer beware’. It is completely within ACM’s duty to ensure that they are completely satisfied with an artifact before purchasing it. If it is true that the Uma was only stolen less than 10 years ago, and it was eventually bought by ACM under its proclaimed strict acquisition standards, the elephant in the room is bloody obvious. Since this is taxpayers’ money that has been used, I would love to see the Attorney-General’s Chamber go through all of National Heritage Board’s purchases since the mid 1990s to ensure that 1) our public monies have been well-spent, and 2) that Singapore-museums have not broken any international anti-smuggling laws.

Why should AGC get involved? Because they have come down very hard on an overpriced folding-bike even though the procurement process was followed. Did you know that when NHB museums spend millions on buying stuff, they do not go through a open-bidding process where everyone can see? They find the object (either from auctions or private sellers) and then they only need an internal committee to approve the purchase, even if it costs USD650,000? Considering that all govt depts have to go through the open-bidding process (not just for items but also services) for any items/services above $3,000, the AGC should find NHB’s artifact-expenditures very interesting indeed!

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Asian Civilisations Museum says that the Uma they purchased was done with due diligence; You say po-tay-toe, they say po-tah-toe?

  1. Anonymous

    “I would love to see the Attorney-General’s Chamber go through all of National Heritage Board’s purchases since the mid 1990s..”- why the mid-90s in particular? I can’t see the link between the Uma and the mid-90s..?

    • NHB was set up in 1993 I think, and since then, millions of public money have been spent on acquisition of artifacts, paintings etc. Much of that spending spree must have been for the setting up of Tao Nan Museum and the ACM at Empress Place, and also to bolster the Southeast Asian collection at S’pore Art Museum.

      • Anonymous

        Ah I see. I just checked the website, it was indeed set up in 1993. Fancy it can spend USD650,000 on an Indian antiquity; what has it or would it spend on local archaeology? A sad state of affairs.

  2. Anonymous

    They find the object (either from auctions or private sellers) and then they only need an internal committee to approve the purchase, even if it costs USD650,000?

    An internal committee? Really? I thought the committee comprises members of the public, and not staff from NHB…

    • As far as I know, the committees are made up of existing board members or other ‘experts’, and it is by invitation only. This probably means that the committee members are somehow all linked to the museums and are not ‘independent’ as such. I think external parties (such as antique/art experts) are sometimes consulted, but they do not have the final say.

  3. none of the above

    There is no doubt that protocol was observed but what does this really mean.

    First, at least 99% of antiquities in museums or private collections are stolen/looted, unless it is part of a joint research project and museums/institutions have a share of finds. Curators know this, that’s why museums have protocols, the antique dealer is the equivalent of a swiss bank. The Macdonald institute in Cambridge has extensive literature on this. Also look at what the Thais did to the Art Institute of Chicago in the 80s after a lintel stolen from Phimai popped up in Chicago. AI’s response was lame to say the least, but it was eventually returned when they were promised by a patron a piece of equivalent dollar value!

    Second, given the first point, it is the governing philosophy of the institution that leads to the acquisition and this is what needs to be looked at. Compared to real world class museums, NHB came in the game late but it wants to own things rather than be creative about its collection. It also begs the question, what was the rationale behind the creation of NHB.

    Australia’s National Gallery acknowledged that a sculpture they bought from the same dealer was defintely stolen and are returning it. They paid a lot more than USD650 000.

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