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.