Operation Hidden Idol: The Struggle To Bring Back Indian Antiquities

Operation Hidden Idol: The Struggle To Bring Back Indian Antiquities

by S Vijay Kumar - Tuesday, May 5, 2015 12:15 AM IST
Operation Hidden Idol: The Struggle To Bring Back Indian Antiquities

After the first part on how artefacts worth millions are smuggled from India because of the indifference of the authorities, the sequel looks at what happens to these lost Gods in an unending saga of shame.

The Indian Prime Minister has to choose between gifts like a copy of The Bhagwad Gita or a Madhubani painting when he meets a dignitary from abroad.  Interestingly, the visitors don’t need to deal with any such dilemma, since all they need to do is gift him a looted sculpture.

In the past too, India had been the recipient of a few such gifts. However, awareness about them was confined to small ceremonies in embassies, a quiet photo-op, or perhaps, just a press release.

Return of Varaha, 2006
Return of Varaha, 2006

(A ninth century idol with the carvings of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu was stolen from the Varaha temple in Mandsour, Madhya Pradesh. The idol had been stolen in 2000, and although investigations led to the discovery of the owner of a gallery in possession of the stolen deity, nobody could be arrested because of the absence of appropriate evidence. The good news which eclipsed the indifference of Indian authorities was that the idol returned to its home, the Mandsour temple.)

Operation Hidden Idol: The Struggle To Bring Back Indian Antiquities

(Three artefacts were shipped to Hong Kong, Thailand and London before they eventually surfaced in America. They were found, but no arrests were made once again.)

Behind such creative and benevolent gifting is a dubious narrative. The principal characters here steal, smuggle and route artefacts with the usage of methods which would eradicate the scope of suspicion. Some dealers and galleries, whenever they face the heat from mounting evidence, quietly slip these works of art through this deceptively innocuous route of gifting. Their first option is actually to gift it to their local museum, gain goodwill, a honorary plaque and of course, a weighty tax exemption.

If the objects are relatively unknown, they are abandoned outside the Indian embassies, an act rumored to be brokered by leading art experts and scholars! Or else, the local embassy would accept the ‘gift’ with much fanfare but make no attempt to pursue the criminal network.

Australian Prime Minister Tony Abott returned the Sripuranthan Nataraja and the VrdidhachalamArdhanari to India.  The consequence was a photo-op, but the hard fact is that the Australian galleries do have many Indian objects with similarly-faked provenances that are actually on display.

Even such gharwapasis, to borrow a popular word, are rare. The reason being that India has hardly any system to protect its art treasures. There is no national archive, no national art squad, and as we are going to see, no will to fight for the return of ancestral treasures. The recent high- profile returns have been due to activism and media campaigns, but it is wrong to judge the success or failure of a system by the homecoming of a few Gods. What we plan to highlight now, therefore, is the lethargic and unsystematic approach while pursuing cases of loss.

The greatest insult to India’s efforts to safeguard her treasures was the shoddy investigation into the famed Sotheby’s dealings. Sotheby’s had to close their London office based on the BBC sting operation and Peter Watson’s book Sotheby’s: The Inside Story. Yet, the very people manning the office were not even charged by India. They quietly opened their own shop in London specialising in ‘antiquities.’ The accused on the Indian side, Vaman Ghiya, was arrested in 2003, but a State High Court acquitted him in January, 2014. What is simply unimaginable was that the custodians did not follow up on even the clear cases like the Attru Varaha, a depiction of Vishnu in his incarnation as a boar sold by Ghiya to a collector in Zurich.

Out of the 10,000 artefacts that Ghiya had originally confessed to having smuggled out of India, the Indian government could not even restitute a single one for 10 years. After looking into the case, we have observed that the custodians haven’t even bothered to build a lost database archive or put out a lookout alert notice with photographs of the stolen sculptures.

That is when we decided not to let one more big fish escape from the net, and loot India for another decade. We began to update our database and support our volunteers in the largest hunt for Indian antiquities. Our clarion call often fell on deaf ears. For years, when we shouted from the rooftops and said that were losing thousands of antiques every year, no one took us seriously.

Operation “Hidden Idol” that has resulted in the seizure of 2500 items would hopefully bring much-needed attention from the Indian authorities. Even these are only from one dealer and, that too, from just his standing stock. Despite a 2011 notice asking museums to review their purchases, not a single one has declared their suspect purchases on their own. Enthusiasts working with us have been trying to persuade them, but there are many more who are trying to delay the effort with the hope that the effort loses steam.

A person as notorious as Subhash Kapoor has only been charged with three cases of theft from Tamil Nadu: Sripuranthan, Suthamalli and Vriddhachalam. There is the glaring case of the Nagapattinam Buddha, which was claimed to have been marked for theft but saved by prompt action of the cops. However, the stone sculpture was already in America, adorning the cover of Art of the Past catalogue and even loaned to a Singapore museum for their exhibition “the Nalandha way” inaugurated by the then Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh himself !

The overseas offices of the Indian Government fare no better either. After we reported in July 2013 that the Toledo Ganesha had actually been a smuggled one, the museum wrote to the Indian consulate and the Indian ambassador seeking help, but received no response for six months.  Finally the museum handed over the Ganesha to the American authorities.

The Culture Minister has recently declared in Parliament that India is seeking the return of merely eight artefacts,  all courtesy private efforts by core members of the India Pride Project. These artefacts include the Ohio Bronze Ganesha from Sripuranhan; couple of bronzes already in the custody of US customs related to the Sripurantan case; the Singapore Asian  Civilisations’ Uma  from Sripurantan;  the massive $ 15 million Barhut Yakshi based on Dr. Kirit Mankodi’s investigative work; and, the Stuttgart Museum stone Durga from Kashmir for which a high level ASI delegation made an unsuccessful bid last year (maybe due to inadequate preparation as media reported a bronze durga and not stone !).

The US Customs just declared their intent to seek custody of over 2600 artifacts seized from various Art of Past storage locations of which 80 percent are of Indian origin. The Toledo museum has at least one more stone sculpture ( Pala Varaha) purchased from the same dealer with unclear provenance plus over 244 items as gifts in just the year 2007, majority being terracotta sculptures of Gupta period ( 2nd C BC) allegedly stolen from Chandrakutagarh in West Bengal.

The ACM Singapore has more than two dozen items listed as bought from Kapoor for over $ 1.4 million and at least two more objects with unclear provenance : the Sivan Koodal  Somaskanda and a sandstone Buddha pair of the Nancy Weiner Buddha being returned from Australia ( no mention of this either). The National Gallery of Australia also has over a dozen items with clear fake provenances including a bronze sambandar, a pair of South Indian door guardians, a relief from Amaravathi, and a Chola Pratyangiradevi. Many more museums including the Harn Museum of Art in Florida and the Birmingham Museum have been exposed by our efforts while investigating into Kapoor’s dubious activities.

Operation Hidden Idol: The Struggle To Bring Back Indian Antiquities
Operation Hidden Idol: The Struggle To Bring Back Indian Antiquities

What can be done or could have been done differently in this case?

– Almost every Art of the Past sale seems to have been supported with an Art Loss register certificate. The ALR is a for-profit provenance verification company. Instead of scanning the world’s museums and galleries for Kapoor’s footprints, India should ask ALR to provide all certificates issued to Art of Past.

– Shipping manifest information for imports into the USA is covered by the AMS filing. A casual search for NIMBUS Imports (the fronthead for Art of Past imports) shows shipments were out in marine containers from Chennai (many cases LCL shipments with reputed carriers), Mumbai and Kolkata. The customs papers were filed as garden furniture and brass handicrafts.

– The NGA/Sripuranthan Nataraja undertook a more circuitous route. It was shipped to a lady in Hong Kong who received it and then shipped it to a world-renowned  ‘restorer’ in the UK. Though their names were in the initial reports, they do not feature in any of the FIR’s.

– There is a growing need to find evidence to support the restitution attempts, especially for objects from other states. America has taken the initiative and is likely to return what is with them, but an equal and possibly more valuable number of lost art is lying in various other countries. Without a proper action plan, we would be abandoning our Gods.

– Charge and prosecute not just Kapoor but all his accomplices. Many of these men are out on bail in Tamil Nadu. No better example than the glaring example that follows.

Operation Hidden Idol: The Struggle To Bring Back Indian Antiquities

“ Hide the two dancers and their consorts in the closet” read the note. Handwritten by an arrested art smuggler, an American citizen of Indian origin, this note reached his accomplice in suburban Manhattan while he was held by the law enforcement agencies in India. The smuggler had been caught after an Interpol red corner notice went out for him in September 2011.  The entire effort lasted for a full five years, after his consignment was stopped at Mumbai customs in 1997.

The above bronze is that of one of the consorts. She has been hidden in the heart of New York. So are these two Natarajas. The search is still on…

Operation Hidden Idol: The Struggle To Bring Back Indian Antiquities
Vijay is a shipping professional working in Singapore. He is an avid heritage enthusiast and runs poetryinstone, a blog aimed at promoting awareness of Indian art.
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