Priceless Indian Artefacts With Australia; Will They Ever Come Back Home?

Priceless Indian Artefacts With Australia; Will They Ever Come Back Home?

by S Vijay Kumar - Sunday, March 27, 2016 07:09 PM IST
Priceless Indian Artefacts With Australia; Will They Ever Come Back Home?Gallery at New South Wales (Brianne Makin/Getty Images))
  • Number of priceless Indian artefacts lie in Australia. Can India ever get them back?

A sculpture was lifted from a temple and a replica was installed. The switch went unnoticed for 12 long years. The smuggled artefact is sent out to America before ending up in a prestigious state museum down under in Australia – sold for $400,000 in 2004, before a keen eye (mine!) spotted the much photographed and published marvel of Chola Art. The media whipped up a frenzy finally forcing the then Australian Prime Minister Mr. Tony Abott to personally bring it back to Delhi and hand it over to our Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi.

Returned Artefacts from Australia
Returned Artefacts from Australia

It was supposed to be a sign of how good the relationship between the two countries were. To be honest, Australia was quick – but when the true extent of the loot unravelled, the sprint seems like a laboured crawl.

Another independent review of collections in Australia reinforced the fact that they were holding on to the thinnest of hopes after decades of optical due diligence – almost every single artefact in the reviews have “serious doubts”.

For starters – the two artefacts that were returned (thanks to our efforts) were no cases at all – with clear and irrefutable evidence showing that these were indeed cases of theft.

Here is another case.  This pertains to a sculpture currently in the National Gallery of Australia. It was sold by the same notorious Subhash Kapoor, accused in many other art smuggling cases, for $247,500 in 2005. This is the story of how the Pratyangira or Lion Lady sculpture was smuggled out of India.


The Pratyangira is a very unique sculpture showing a composite form of Kali with the face of a lion. This rarest depiction of the legend of Pratyangira is connected to Narasimha and Sarabeshwara, and is not common in Chola temples.

As per the earlier due diligence report released two years ago by the National gallery – the provenance information provided reads as under:

  • With Kangra Art Palace, New Delhi, 1971 or before
  • From Rajpati Singh and Insan Mohammad of New York, 12th August 1971
  • By gift to Selina Mohamed, New York, 1990

Selina Mohamed has already been charged in US courts in December 2013 for faking provenance papers of Indian arts works for the notorious art dealer (now under investigation for smuggling) Subhash Kapoor. See here for more details about Subhash Kapoor.

​We had earlier pointed out that the Kangra Art Palace was a shop owned by Subhash Kapoor’s father.  Interestingly, one Sri Kapoor of Kangra Art Palace was involved in the case of smuggling a Vishnu idol as far back as 1971!

The French Institute of Pondicherry archives have been crucial in providing us the evidence in cases of art smuggling. We now have from them the in situ photograph of the Pratyangira sculpture in the Vriddagireeshwar temple, Vriddhachalam and matched it to the statue now in Australia.

The Pratyangira
The Pratyangira

Some two and a half years earlier we had taken up the case of a Ardhanari sculpture which had been smuggled from Vriddhachalam. An FIR had been lodged - thanks to the activism by India Pride Project, a group of volunteer activists trying to bring back smuggled Indian art.  We’ve now discovered that the Pratyangira statue/sculpture was also smuggled from the same temple in Vriddhachalam!

So, basically, the authorities lodged an FIR because some activists were highlighting the issue but missed to spot the theft of another statue from the same temple! Such is the condition of our custodians of art!

Given the state of affairs only god can save our artistic treasures!

Meanwhile, Subhash Kapoor has been arrested and is under trial, Selina has been charged with faking provenance papers, Kangra Art palace was a convenient ruse and we know that the Ardhanari returned by Art Gallery of New South Wales had all the above boxes ticked. So, Australia, can you please send the Pratyangira sculpture back please?

Note: The India Pride Project are seeking support for their petition to the Government of India regarding the careless manner in which Indian art and heritage is being handled.  You can read more about the petition (and sign it if you like) at this link.

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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