The return of the antiques

Customs officials who have nabbed many an antique robber, before they left our shores, hand over their priceless loot to the National Museum
By Kumudini Hettiararchchi, Pix by Saman Kariyawasam

There was no pomp and ceremony just a simple event last Tuesday at the Biodoversity Unit of the Department of Customs down Bristol Street, Fort. It was, however, not only a momentous occasion but also a first because it entailed giving back to the people of this country what rightly belongs to them.

A national treasure trove of antiques that many a person attempted to take out but spotted by the eagle eye of diligent Customs Officers, seized and confiscated and kept at the department was handed over to the National Museum.

The large haul was over a long period of time, said the Deputy Director of Customs, Samantha Gunasekara pointing out that antiques cannot be taken out of Sri Lanka without a permit from the Director-General of Archaeology.

These antiques, the Sunday Times understands, were spotted in passenger baggage, concealed in false bottoms, wrapped in cloth, hidden among clothes or among export shipments.

Sometimes they were declared as antiques but without a permit and at others, people tried to take them out under false declarations, even calling them reproductions, said Mr. Gunasekara.

He recalls how an anonymous caller searched for him personally and tipped him off about an attempt to surreptitiously slip out a beautiful gem-studded conch shell along with a silver knife with an intricately-carved ivory handle.

Here was the element of surprise. “We nabbed the culprit while he was in the queue to check-in at the airport,” smiles Mr. Gunasekara, adding that the person was caught off-guard.

The antiques that people attempt to smuggle out of the country include from the minute to the huge, the Sunday Times learns. Beautiful little weights of pure ivory to large almirahs made of kaluwara fall within the range seized and confiscated by the Customs.

Mr. Gunasekara talks of “masterpieces” that they had seized – a unique tool with a carved ivory handle which could be slipped into the waistcloth in ancient times and also a pure ivory scale.

“The knife had been used to cut pus kola (ola leaf) and the accompanying pen pulled out for writing. This was from the Kandyan Period,”he explains, adding that he had never seen an ivory scale like that.

The list of the “haul” most willingly taken by the Assistant Director (Ethnology), Senarath Wickramasinghe on behalf of the Department of National Museums is very long. Unobtrusively examining and admiring the pieces was the Director-General of Customs, Sudharma Karunaratne.

“There are ceremonial knives with carved ivory handles from as far back as the Kandyan Period, jewellery boxes, tobacco boxes, heavy door keys and knockers, scales and weights, granite, bronze, copper, ivory and wooden statues, railway lamps, equipment including scrapers used in the preparation of ayurvedic medicine, telescopes and much more,” says Mr. Wickramasinghe, adding that there were also many swords from other countries such as India, Malaysia and as far away as Japan.

“It’s all in the eye,” says Mr. Gunasekara when asked how they are able to distinguish the antique from the non-antique. “We are trained but it is the eye that picks it up,” he says, explaining that his team has done a good job without facilities such as carbon-dating. In furniture, they check out the natural weathering as opposed to artificial weathering, it is learnt.

When spotted, they detain the items and request archaeological and museum experts to check them out. “Then we find that ‘non-antiques’ have suddenly changed into ‘antiques’,” he adds.
To formalize the handover the Customs Department is now awaiting from the Museum a “sannasa” (deed) with the list of antiques.

Top to the page  |  E-mail  |  views[1]
SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Other Plus Articles
Something fishy adds to Wilpattu’s woes
Together again
Loris eyes extracted by fire -- Letter to the editor
Massacre of the voiceless and shame of a nation -- Letter to the editor
Ariyawathie saga: Is it a case of Munchausen’s Syndrome? -- Letter to the editor
Trinitians salute a role model on and off the field -- Appreciation
A sincere friend and livewire at gatherings -- Appreciation
Patriot who worked tirelessly to protect the Buddha Sasana -- Appreciation
Good luck to baby Shivanka as he takes wing to Chennai
A special school that has special needs
Ramadhan – A time to reflect and re-affirm
The return of the antiques
Phoenix shows its creative side
Collette here to talk on contemporary tapestry
HOPeS brings their labour of love to Colombo
Jayani ‘s exhibition of paintings
A place to dance
Remembering a man of many parts Tissa Abeysekera
Reading the unread graffiti
Delon and his group to tackle three big names
Visha’s pupils in step with tradition and modernity
At the cutting edge of public debates
Five faces for a full house and launcher of a thousand ships
Lecture on awareness of strokes at NSAL AGM today
From Japan: A peace voyage sets sail
Research papers called for National Conference on Buddhist Studies
Lankan Muslim scholar on lecture tour of Canada
A rare book on snakes
Designer wear on sale
People and events


Reproduction of articles permitted when used without any alterations to contents and a link to the source page.
© Copyright 2010 | Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka. All Rights Reserved.| Site best viewed in IE ver 6.0 @ 1024 x 768 resolution