Incredible insurance | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 31, 2007 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, December 31, 2007

Incredible insurance

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The Guimet Museum catalogue shows photographic images of an ancient manuscript containing paintings on palm leaves, top, and a bronze statue of Buddha, right.

The government was sending the artefacts to Paris for display at the Guimet National Museum under a nominal insurance cover.
The insurance for 188 priceless artefacts was set at only 5.50 million euros [around Tk 55 crore] whereas value of some of the items individually could be more than the insurance money, said experts.
'Vajrasattva', a Pala-era statue moulded out of eight metals, and 'Pragya Paromita', ancient paintings on manuscript made of palm leaves--any of them could fetch more than the amount the entire collection was insured for.
Dr Joachim K Bautze, a German art historian who is an honorary fellow of the International Centre for Study of Bengal Art, in a letter to the French ambassador in Dhaka said, "Would you consider an insurance value of just four million euros [initially set amount] sufficient for all the treasures of France?
"For this amount of money you cannot buy a fragment of a painting by Vincent van Gogh, but your government considers this adequate 'according to international standards' for the cream of the art of Bangladesh."
It all appears to be a financial fraud especially since an item like 'Vajrasattva' alone would be worth the total value of insurance, noted Bautze, a specialist in Asian art.
Coming from the museum of Mainamati, the bronze statue of a seated Buddha seems to be one of the major attractions for the Guimet Museum authorities. Its picture has been used on both the front and back covers of the catalogue for the now cancelled exhibition titled "Masterpieces from the museums of Bangladesh".
Sufi Mustafizur Rahman, chairman of the archaeology department at Jahangirnagar University, said, “I don't believe you can find another Vajrasattva even if you search the whole world through. It is simply an amazing work of art.”
He observed, "I'm not sure if in the ninth or tenth century when the statue was sculpted here in Bangladesh the other world knew the metal moulding technology."
A clause of the agreement signed with France with regard to loan of the antiquities says the Guimet Museum is entitled to restore the artefacts prior to the opening of the exhibition. Referring to that, one of the experts seeking anonymity said, “It is indeed very fishy.
“I don't think it is necessary to restore all the artefacts before the exhibition. It may be hard to distinguish between the original ones and the restored ones without a carbon test,” added the art connoisseur.
Sufi Mustafizur Rahman said Bangladesh has only two Pragya Paromita, a Pala era manuscript containing paintings.
“The government was sending both of them. Except us, only Cambridge University and India may have such manuscripts. If we lose them nobody is going to give those back to us,” he said.
It was known that only three leaves of a manuscript like Pragya Paromita were sold for $12,000 [around 8,000 euros] each at an auction in Europe. But according to the agreement, the insurance coverage for more than 700 such leaves had been set at only 30,000 euros.
According to the agreement, only the borrower, the Guimet Museum, could make a claim on the insurance.
Besides, there are other clauses that go against the interest of lenders, three Bangladesh museums.
For instance, article nine prevents "recourse against the carriers, freight agents, storage operators, packers, holders or guardians thereof, including the borrower's staff, and any person lending their support to the organisation of the exhibition".
An observer who has been following the developments closely said the whole thing manifests poor negotiation skills of the Bangladesh side. They could have turned to Unesco for expertise required to set out fair terms and conditions in the agreement as well as a comprehensive insurance cover for the age-old objects.
Despite protests from citizens, the government has already sent 42 items. The remainder of the collection was awaiting shipment at the Zia International Airport when two 1,500-year-old Vishnu statuettes went missing last week leading to resignation of the cultural affairs adviser and cancellation of the exhibition.
The law enforcers managed to retrieve broken pieces of the stolen artefacts Thursday.

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