refill mont blanc fountain pen Antique smuggling
Murky dealings: Vaman Narayan Ghiya in police custody in Jaipur. His role in an international smuggling ring was first exposed in a book on Sotheby’s
The liked versace suits, wore Rolex watches and carried Mont Blanc pens. He sported Italian shoes and stayed in luxury hotels.
Ghiya’s activities were chronicled in Peter Watson’s Sotheby’s: The Inside Storywhich was the equivalent of a stink bomb on the pricey auction house. Ghiya was so wary of being caught that he would often switch hotels if he saw someone staring at him in the lobby for more than a heartbeat.
Ghiya was the mini mogul of a murky world where vases were illegally excavated from graves in Italy and temple carvings stolen in the middle of the night from under the nose of sleeping priests in India.
When the Jaipur Police searched his home on June 7, they found 34 catalogues each of Sotheby’s and Christie’s on Indian and South east Asian art listing thousands of Indian antiques. When Ghiya was asked to flag the pieces he had smuggled for these auction houses, he marked nearly 700.
And that included Khajuraho pieces that fetched Rs 6 crore and paintings by Old Masters worth Rs 1 crore, not to mention ancient idols and figurines. Though Ghiya now faces up to seven years in jail for running an antique smugglers’ gang, no one has counted him out.
So it was not surprising that he was aggressive and insulting when Anand Shrivastav, SP, Jaipur, went to haul him in after a year long undercover operation that began with the recovery of antiques from a small gang in June last year.
This is not the first time that Ghiya is in trouble. In 1986, the CBI investigated a customs seizure of a consignment of his antiques in Mumbai but then the court acquitted him. Ghiya is so slippery that he had Brendan Lynch, head of Sotheby’s oriental antiquities section, hiding in his cupboard when the CBI conducted a surprise raid on his home later in the year. Later when Watson came down to look into his crimes, the investigative journalist ran out of funds and had to concentrate the narrative only on the Sham brothers (Esa and Fakrou), two of the biggest antique dealers in Mumbai. “He beats the hardest of the criminals when it comes to stubborn silence,” says Ram Singh Shekhawat, a young inspector on the job.
Ghiya pretends pain, refuses to eat and rarely volunteers information. In the court, however, he shouted that he had been framed. Knowing well that once in custody Ghiya would be a tough nut to crack, the police worked overtime to gather enough evidence against him.
Ajit Singh Shekhawat, DIG, Jaipur, sent a team of 20 officers in civvies to crucial spots in several cities sometimes they even spent many nights there. In Jaipur, Shrivastav and others would analyse information that came in on a day to day basis.
They would scan the Internet, read books and scour research papers besides going through FIRs of all antique thefts in Rajasthan. The American Institute of Indian Studies, Gurgaon, Haryana, turned out to be a major source.
Sotheby’s: The Inside Story,
copies of which were procured from abroad, also provided an insight into how auction houses worked, besides providing names of many buyers and sellers.
Ghiya was the mastermind of a complex smuggling network. Antique pieces disappeared from tiny villages in India to repeatedly surface in the collections of the super rich in Manhattan penthouses and London lofts. In 1999, an idol of a Jain tirthankar went missing from Krishna Vilas in Baran, Rajasthan, an ASI protected site.
A year later it emerged in Sotheby’s September catalogue, where it was tagged at a reserve price of $25,000 $35,000 (between Rs 12 lakh and Rs 16.5 lakh). Similarly, a five quintal stone figurine of Varaha was stolen from Attru, Rajasthan, in 1988. It now rests in a private museum in Switzerland that belonged to one Dr R. Its photograph was found in Ghiya’s album and also in Christie’s September 2000 catalogue.
GODDESSES, SAAS BAHU TEMPLE: This photograph from the American Institute of Indian Studies shows seven figurines on the temple ceiling in Udaipur. These disappeared after December 1999.
He has also said that Russek bought half of his 500 strong Indian collection from Ghiya, in what is just the tip of his antique empire. Ghiya’s is a trash to treasures story.
Born to a studio photographer in old Jaipur city in 1947, he graduated in science from Maharaja College, Jaipur, before marrying in 1970. By that time, he was into selling Rajasthani paintings in Jaipur and Mumbai. In Mumbai, one of his bulk buyers introduced him to a Frenchwoman Arien Fye who initiated him into the antiques trade as a middleman.
Making contact with the Sham brothers, he soon set up handicraft outlets in five star hotels in metros and displayed goods at international exhibitions to build contacts with private collectors around the world.
They became his major buyers and by the mid ’80s, Ghiya had emerged as a force to reckon with, using 10 export companies as his conduits. He set up at least three firms in Switzerland: Cap Lion Logging, Artistic Import Corporation and Megavena.
In London, Ghiya was provided space in the house of James Hodges of Sotheby’s to store the loot. Ghiya would travel round the globe to regularly meet Sotheby’s dealers and kept an eagle eye on a flourishing network of dealers.
In 1997, after the arrest of his close rival Giacomo Medici in Italy, he probably became the very best in the business. In James Ivory’s Hullabaloo Over George and Bonnie’s Pictures, a wonderful take on the world of antique thieves, Saeed Jaffrey’s huckster wants to relieve Victor Banerjee’s raja of his priceless miniature paintings.
The princess Aparna Sen wants the lovely money but the raja cannot understand the fuss: for him art is nothing more than a lot of naked women. Clearly,
Ghiya thinks differently.