The Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) has written to the Punjab government to initiate action under conduct rules against a senior government official for his alleged transactions with a businessman accused of antique smuggling. The case relates to smuggling of furniture, designed by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier and his associate and cousin Pierre Jeanneret, from Chandigarh.
According to a show-cause notice issued by the DRI on August 4, Navjot Pal Singh Randhawa — he was Director, Tourism and Cultural Affairs, Archaeology, Museums and Archives of Punjab until May this year when he was transferred to the Defence Services Welfare department as Deputy Secretary — admitted in his statement to the agency that he “assisted” US-based Indian origin businessman Vijay Nanda, accused of antique smuggling, “in procuring a few antiquities”.
Nanda was arrested by the DRI on February 6 for alleged smuggling of at least 13 antiques and artefacts from India to US, UK and Hong Kong. The DRI has seized about 80 antiques and artefacts from Nanda and his associates across the country.
In his statement to DRI, Randhawa, a Punjab Civil Services officer, said he knew Nanda for the last two-and-half years and “admitted” selling furniture to Nanda’s close associate Devesh Goel who allegedly shipped at least six consignments of antique furniture to Nanda’s firm Sage Mercantile LLC in US between November 2014 and August 2016.
The agency questioned Randhawa in May about his business transactions with Nanda. “…he (Randhawa) had requested Vijay Nanda to bid for him, on a few occasions for books/daggers, in the auctions conducted by auction house at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York/London; Vijay Nanda used to bid for him and whenever his bids were successful, Vijay Nanda has made the payments to the auction houses and couriered the article to him at his Chandigarh address. During the above statement, Mr Randhawa admitted having assisted Vijay Nanda in procuring a few antiquities. Mr Randhawa also admitted having sold heritage furniture to Devesh Goel,” the DRI said in its notice.
Goel, a Delhi-based exporter, was arrested by the DRI on April 1 for allegedly helping Nanda in smuggling antiques. In his statement to the DRI on March 31, he said the furniture exported to Sage Mercantile was purchased from Randhawa.
“Vijay Nanda informed him that he (Vijay) was interested in importing heritage furniture from India (especially designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret and available in Punjab), as in western countries it had a huge demand; Vijay Nanda requested him to send photographs of a few furniture pieces if available with him for sale; after a few days, he sent Vijay Nanda photographs of few furniture pieces acquired from Punjab…,” the DRI notice quoted Goel’s statement.
The alleged involvement of Randhawa assumes significance as in the last two years, the Chandigarh police have registered several FIRs in connection with theft of furniture designed by Le Corbusier and Jeanneret in the Union Territory.
When his comments were sought, Navjot Singh Sidhu, Punjab Minister of Local Government, Tourism and Cultural Affairs, Archives and Museums, said: “I am not aware of the allegations against Mr Randhawa but two months ago, we transferred him out of the department because we wanted honest officers in the department. We are currently making an inventory of all the antiques. If indeed these allegations are true, we will take strict action against him.”
When Chandigarh was built in the 1950s, buildings in the new city were stocked with furniture and fixtures designed by Le Corbusier and Jeanneret. According to an inventory created by the UT administration, there are over 12,000 items made by the duo. These items are highly valued by collectors and have regularly been surfacing in international auctions.
Outrage over the international sales of Chandigarh furniture has prompted regular attempts by the administration and even diplomats to stall auctions. While activists at home have tried to have the furniture designated as ‘art treasures’, the ASI has declared that the matter does not come under the purview of the Art Treasures and Antiquities Act, 1972.
“…..he (Goel) had introduced Vijay Sir to Mr Randhawa in the month of December, 2014; thereafter, three of them have met on a couple of occasions; he knew that Vijay Sir and Mr Randhawa were in regular touch and Mr Randhawa has also arranged a few antiquities for Vijay Sir,” the DRI notice stated.
But on April 19, Goel approached a Mumbai court, seeking to retract his statement to the DRI and accusing the agency of using “physical force, coercion and duress” while recording it. The DRI contested the charge and informed the court that the allegation was “false and devoid of any merit”. Goel is currently out on bail.
In an email response, Vijay Nanda said: “This matter is currently sub judice, so I do not want to get into any specifics at this time. I have received the show-cause notice from DRI and the allegations are baseless and unfounded.”
Emails and phone calls to Randhawa and Goel did not elicit any response.
On February 6, the DRI arrested Nanda from his residence in Girgaum Chowpatty in south Mumbai and recovered at least six stone sculptures, dating back to the 10th Century, from his residence and godown in Byculla. The agency also found 1st Century terracotta figurines and 17th Century and 18th Century bronze figurines at Nanda’s house.
The DRI has alleged that Nanda is part of an international art smuggling syndicate that uses people to steal sculptures from temples in southern and eastern India. These sculptures are then legitimised through forged ASI certificates and smuggled out of India concealed inside “furniture/handicrafts/readymade garment consignments”.
The DRI has alleged that Nanda used to arrange auctions and subsequent sale in the United States and Hong Kong to private collections and museums. Nanda is currently out on bail but his passport has been impounded by the DRI. On July 27, the Bombay High Court stayed a lower court order that directed the DRI to release Nanda’s passport.