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!