How artefacts worth millions are smuggled from India, and the authorities don’t seem to care

A few days ago a US official revealed the full extent of “Operation Hidden Idol” which had recovered approximately 2,600 items worth an estimated 650 Crores ($100 million). This brought out the truth about scores of artefacts being stolen by just one disgraced art dealer, Subhash Kapoor. And this was just the number seized from his unsold stock in various storage lockers in America. Apart from this there are between 500–1000 objects held by various American museums, many of which are believed to be with unclear provenances (place of origin/source).  It wouldn’t be unreasonable then to imagine that are thousands of other such objects, smuggled from India which are held in various museums, in various countries or are with various private collectors. 

In any other country, information like this would’ve caused much furore. But in India, only a casual mention of the retrieval of a few pieces from Hawaii was made.

The information provided against Subhash Kapoor and his associates led to only 3 cases being filed against them. These are related to smuggling of idols from 3 temples in Tamil Nadu. Of the 30 items stolen, only 2, those of deities, have returned home. Those two – the Sripuranthan Nataraja and the Vriddhachalam Ardhnari  have been retrieved from Australia, thanks to a private team of enthusiasts- the India Pride Project.

How an entire nation could’ve missed these important thefts is mind boggling. The arrest of one Vaman Ghiya and his associates in 2002 should have drawn our attention to crimes like this even earlier. Almost 10,000 artefacts are said to have been stolen and sold abroad by Ghiya and his associates. An association with Sotheby’s has been mentioned, although their involvement in the case hasn’t been determined. Yet, all this was forgotten or ignored when the Rajasthan High court acquitted Ghiya in early 2014.

Incidentally, the ASI and Ministry of Culture could not recover or even identify any of the objects he was accused of smuggling. These are part of a scathing CAG report as well.

Despite the rampant smuggling, India is yet to sign an MOU with the United States of America. Ironically, it is the USA which is utilizing its manpower and resources to identify and return these stolen artefacts. Even in the US, the case of the Toledo Museum’s Ganesha shows the total apathy of Indian officials to secure stolen artefacts.

It is the same story of official apathy when it comes to our artefacts in other countries like Singapore and Australia. India’s lack of initiative has led to an abandoning of most efforts to retrieve our symbols of heritage.

Just take the example of the idols in National Gallery of Australia. The Bronze Nataraja and Stone Ardhanari worth 40 crores ($6 million) were brought back without major support from the government. To help their cause, the group involved had to use social media.

In March 2014, The National Gallery of Australia, in a report to the Australian Minister for Arts also listed the detailed provenance information on their acquisitions from Subhash Kapoor. (Keep in mind that in 1970, the UN passed the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property – which India signed in 1972)

The following items were noted:

1.Durga Mahishasuramardhini 

NGA accession number 2002.373 – possibly from Gujarat or Rajasthan purchased in Aug 2002. The provenance lists the original seller in India as M/s. Uttam Singh and Sons, Delhi prior to 1967. The 10th Century Chola granite Ardhanari was returned by the Art Gallery of Newsouth Wales after being provided with irrefutable proof that it was stolen post 2002 from the Vridagireeswarar temple in Vridhachalam, Tamil Nadu. The fake provenance provided for that piece was also from M/s. Uttam Singh and Sons. The shop still functions in Delhi selling brass ware and has confirmed that their letter heads were faked.

2. Jain arch for shrine 

NGA accession number 2003.441 – possibly from Mount Abu, Rajasthan, purchased in Dec 2003. The provenance lists the previous owner as Raj Mehgoub from her husband – a Sundanese diplomat Abdulla Mehgoub between 1968 and 1971. The gallery also sought expert opinion from Dr. Vidya Dehejia who endorsed its quality and authenticity. It is interesting that the same provenance and ownership was provided for the now recovered Sripuranthan Nataraja from the same gallery.

3. Seated Jina (shown above) – NGA accession number 2003.478 – possibly from Mt Abu region, Rajasthan. Purchased in Dec 2003. The previous owner from provenance paper work is the same Raj Mehgoub and Abdulla Mehgoub and are said to have purchased it between 1968 and 1971 in India. It is interesting that the marble sculpture was actually bought by Kapoor in an auction by Christies just a year before this in 2002.

4. Scene from the life of Buddha 

NGA accession number 2205.229 – probably Amaravati region, Andhra Pradesh. Purchased in 2005. The provenance papers again lists it as a purchase from Uttam Singh and sons Delhi.

5. Chola Bronze Dancing Sambandar

NGA accession number 2005.231 – probably Tamil Nadu. Purchased in June 2005. The provenance lists Abdulla Mehgoub and Raj Mehgoub as purchasing it in 1967.

6. Goddess Pratiyangara 

NGA accession number 2005.232 – probably Tamil Nadu. Purchased in June 2005. The provenance lists it being purchased from Kangra Art Palace by Rajpati Singh and Insan Mohammad in 1971. From them as a gift, Ms. Salina Mohamed procured it in 1990. This is a classic case as Kangra Arts was the name of the shop which Subhash Kapoor’s father ran in Delhi. Further, Selina Mohamed has pleaded guilty in US court in December 2013 for among other crimes “laundering the pieces by creating provenance, origin history and letters of authenticity”.  She was sentenced on March 12 2015.

7. Door Guardians 

NGA accession numbers 2005.356. – Probably originally from Tamil Nadu. Purchased in August 2005. Provenance links this purchase to Rajpati Singh and Selina Mohamed in 1971. Photos have surfaced showing the accused holding a dhoti behind the freshly removed and cleaned door guardians in what looks like a lawn in India. In spite of the TN Idol Wing carrying this vital piece of evidence, no judgement has been reached.

8. Lakshmi Narayana

NGA accession number 2006.298 – probable point of origin Rajasthan or Uttar Pradesh. Purchased in Apr 2006 by Rajpati Singh and wife Insan Mohamed purchase in 1960’s. A change in ownership to Selina Mohamed as a gift has been recorded.

9. Nagaraj

NGA accession number 2006.669 – probably from Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh. Purchased in Apr 2006. Provenance papers show it was bought in 1969 by the husband of Ranjit Okha in Japan.

However, photos have emerged with a freshly removed sculpture with a Lungi in the background, wrapped in gunny sacks for transport as evidence.

10. Processional Standard 

NGA accession number 2008.928. Probably from Hyderabad. Purchased in 2008. Provenance papers place owners as Abdulla Mehgoub, Raj Mehgoub who purchased it in India prior to 1971.

Knowing this, it is ironic that when the University of Chicago organised an international seminar in its Delhi centre, titled “The Past for Sale – Protecting India’s Cultural Heritage”, on March 16th and 17th and brought together a team of global experts on the subject, there were no representatives from the Archaeological Survey or the Ministry of Culture present. In light of all these facts, one must ask a question with equal amounts of sadness and exasperation: when will India awake from its slumber and show the world that it will no longer abandon its Gods ?

The author has been involved in restitution of several high profile cultural objects back to India and believes social media has a large role to play in stopping the pillage of our cultural treasures. He aims to spearhead a movement to document India’s sculptural art and make it available online as a searchable archive.

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