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Tweaked duty structure brings cheer to the art fraternity
"Works of art and antiquities are exempt from customs duties when imported for exhibition in a public museum or national institution. In recent years, many organizations have joined the cause of promoting and popularizing both traditional and contemporary art. Some of them have been active in locating heritage works of Indian art and antiquities in foreign countries and bringing them back home. “To encourage such initiatives, I propose to expand the scope of this exemption for works of art and antiquities to also apply to imports for exhibition or display, in private art galleries or similar premises that are open to the general public. Department of Culture will notify details of the scheme separately…"

This is what the Union Finance Minister mentioned during his Budget 2011 speech. Tucked away in the budget statement alongside provision of tax relief for 13-seater ambulance imports lies a piece of welcome news for India’s art collectors in the form of this new provision! Mr. Pranab Mukherjee has chosen to make artworks & antiquities fully exempt from customs duties when they are imported for purpose of public display.

Private galleries and art collections now stand to gain - provided the painting or sculpture they bring in gets a public viewing - indeed a significant change! Till this point, the exemption was available to public institutions. The move on part of the government will help 'internationalize art in India', art experts believe. It’s a welcome gesture for the art fraternity that sees the government's move as an indication of the fact that the officialdom was actually thinking of it.

Until now, curators and collectors have been complaining that getting works in and out of the country equates red-tape of an Egyptian mummy’s wrappings, so to say, points out James Lamont in The UK Financial Times. The writer elaborates (‘India: the art of the tax break’): “Surprisingly for a nation with rich artistic traditions and celebrated contemporary artists, bringing art and antiques into India is as difficult as taking them out. Museum curators – close to the lowest rung in the state bureaucracy, just as the finance ministry is the top – have put up with this for decades.

“The FM is expert at pleasing the mass of voters with extra public spending. But the move on art shows he can pander to more singular tastes. Espousing art nationalism, already shared by countries like China, Brazil and Russia, is only to be expected from an emerging superpower. In his budget speech, Mr. Mukherjee praised collectors for ‘locating heritage works of Indian art & antiquities in foreign countries and also bringing them back home. A stroke of the pen has just offered India’s collectors a little more cut and much needed thrust to bring home their coveted treasures and trophies.”

India's art fraternity gave huge thumbs up, as this is going to boost the collector base in the country. The new provision has freed imported art & antiquities from the shackles of customs duties. The move, it is expected, will help bring more works of art from abroad to India. Thus far, a major bottleneck in importing art and heritage objects of value to India had been the 'poor cost viability largely caused by high customs duties'. In this context, the proposed easing of customs levies is taking place just at the right time when the country is getting ready and economically efficient to appreciate art.

For private promoters and art exhibitors working on scarce resources, the cost incurred in bringing works located abroad made such ventures commercially unviable. Considering this fact, the FM has made a good move not only for helping private promoters, but also for preserving India’s rich artistic heritage. In effect, the several procedural difficulties encountered in importing national heritage art from abroad will now be removed. It will also help display quality foreign art in India. For example, several of Rabindranath Tagore's works are located abroad. It will be easier to acquire some of his artworks and carry them back to India for a major exhibit by a private art gallery. The Ministry of culture hailed the concession proposed by the government as one encouraging 'more & more private, corporate and philanthropic organizations and individuals, to promote and popularize Indian art'. It will soon be notifying the specific details of the proposed scheme for facilitating the return of art and antiques as well as other precious art objects back to India from foreign countries.

Jawahar Sircar, the Union Culture secretary, was mentioned as saying that works brought back from overseas would remain in the country for permanent display. "The Culture Minister, Kumari Selja, and myself welcome the liberalization of the provision for exemption of artworks & antiquities imported for being exhibited in a public museum or for that matter private museums/galleries open for the general public," he was quoted as saying in the Economic Times. "It’s an extremely proactive step, which the government has taken for encouraging private, corporate as well as public institutions to set up museums and galleries (with this duty exemption)."

Of course, equally critical is the implementation aspect. Things like the government relaxations on the import-export of antiquities take time. The deputy director of Sotheby’s (Islamic and Indian Art), Holly Brackenbury, recently quipped: “The government policy isn’t concretized yet so collectors are sitting on the sidelines. Only after the changes come through, it would be interesting to see how the Indian antiquities segment grows.”

Incidentally, the government of India is going to institute a major international award in memory of the legendary poet-painter and Nobel laureate. It will carry a purse of Rs.1 crore. It will be awarded for an individual making exemplary contribution to promotion and harnessing of peace, brotherhood, amity and cultural harmony across the world. The master’s 150th birth anniversary falls on May 7 this year. The finance minister is also a member of the high-level committee that has been constituted to celebrate the occasion. According to him, the celebration of the literary icon’s achievements will be a joint exercise between India and Bangladesh under the aegis of the India-Bangladesh Celebrations Committee.