As Chandigarh celebrates the 56th anniversary of its formation as a union territory, repeated auctions of Chandigarh heritage items in foreign lands in the last one and an half decades have raised many concerns. Many efforts were taken including the formation of a UT Heritage Protection Cell in 2014 chaired by the then UT Adviser, creating a detailed inventory of at least 12,793 heritage items including furniture, manhole covers designed by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier and his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, etc. However, the items continue to be vulnerable, with thefts being reported regularly and auctions happening in foreign countries every second month.
According to the UT Heritage Protection Cell, countless heritage items especially furniture have been auctioned in at least 100 open auctions since 2009. These items reportedly fetched Rs 40 to Rs 50 crore. France, England, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, Germany are the countries where most auctions have taken place. In the recent past, auctions also took place in US and UK.
“So far, there has only been one instance when we managed to save UT’s heritage furniture which was being exported out of the country. This was in July 2018 when a cross legged chair designed by Jeanneret was being smuggled from Inland Container Depot (ICD) in Tughlakabad, Delhi. The custom officers called me and I conveyed it to the then Adviser Parimal Rai. Next day, a meeting was called and two teams rushed to Delhi. The chair was brought back. It was found to be stolen from AC Joshi Library, Panjab University. An FIR was lodged and the staff of LC Original, a firm based in Gurgaon, were arrested. Though we managed to save one item, the repeated auctions in other countries suggest many are still being stolen,” Ajay Jagga, member of UT Heritage Protection Cell, said.
Besides this, eight thefts of heritage items were reported in Chandigarh between 2015 and 2022. In seven cases, the accused were arrested. In one case, the accused were let out in the absence of credible evidence, on October 15. The accused in other cases are still facing trial.
Most recently, a pair of heritage armchairs from Chandigarh, designed by Jeanneret for the Punjab Engineering College, went under the hammer in an auction in London, fetching a whopping Rs 6.21 lakh or around £6,500. The auction took place on October 28. The estimated reserve price of these chairs were pegged between £5000 to £7000.
When contacted, UT Adviser Dharam Pal said, “We are serious about our heritage items. But some things are in the hands of the Ministry of External Affairs. We have a detailed inventory of heritage items and I believe that it helped us preserve the things. Indeed, the repeated auctions in other countries is a matter of concern”.
The matter of heritage items came to light when the Punjab and Haryana High Court asked the UT Administration to respond to a PIL seeking the administration’s interference in the auction of furniture designed by Corbusier and Jeanneret in 2011.
The administration submitted a catalogue of 208 heritage items. In the following years, detailed inventories were made. According to one made in 2012, Chandigarh has 12,793 heritage items of around 131 kinds. There are reports that several items have been left out without identification.