Priceless, yet of little value

The Telegraph (India), Jan 6, 2005

Limited market for stolen Buddha 
Kolkata, India
-- The British Museum and the V&A in London had acquired in 2003 an exquisite seventh century, late Gupta figure of Buddha for 850,000.

<< The seventh century Buddha acquired by the V&A in London 

So, what kind of price could the Buddha head that was stolen from the Archaeology Long gallery of the Indian Museum on December 29 fetch in the international art market?

This particular fifth century object in high relief is from Sarnath, close to Varanasi, and is made of sandstone. It is 24.1 cm in height and 4.9 cm in depth. The 14-inch figure acquired by the British Museum and the V&A is made of copper alloy, its raw material pushing up the price.

Asked what price the missing head would fetch, museum director Shakti Kali Basu said: ?Stolen objects become immediately devalued. No museum would touch it.?

Art historian Pratapaditya Pal added by email from the US: ?Stolen objects always have very limited markets. Most museums, whether in the West or in major Asian countries, no longer buy objects unless they have been legally exported from their countries of origin. This narrows the market further.

?Also, the nose of the stolen head is quite damaged. Under the circumstances, the thieves will be lucky to be able to sell it at all. If they?re successful, they will probably get 10 or 20 cents to the dollar.?

Whatever be its value, its worth cannot be calculated in figures. As museum director Basu said, it has tremendous ?emotional value?.

For, the stolen Buddha belongs to the middle Gupta period, when it reached its acme in the figures of the Bodhisattva, combining the physical perfection of the best of Greek classical sculpture, yet radiating a serenity and bliss that only enlightenment could endow.

The physical poise became the metaphor for his elevated spiritual state, that transcended worldly cares, desires and the inevitable cycle of change.

The Buddhas of Sarnath, where he preached the first sermon, are considered some of the world?s greatest classic achievements, nonpareil as works of art, that left their impress on subsequent representations of the Buddha image for centuries to come.

Moving away from the solid massiveness of the Mathura Buddhas, the Sarnath Buddhas are so refined that they are sublimated to the plane of the abstract. The scholar Stella Kramrisch had waxed eloquent about their ?inner awareness?.

Elaborating on the theme, she had written: ?Buddhist images have now become configurations of silence, in which actions are held in suspense by the gesture of a hand or the crook of a finger.?

How many such figures does the Indian Museum have in its collection?

For obvious reasons, the director refused to come out with a figure, and the website, which is peppered with grammatical, syntactical and typographical errors, did not quote any, either.

But it is common knowledge that the museum on Chowringhee has a veritable treasure trove, of which it exhibits only a fraction.

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