Idol trackers: How stolen treasures are hunted down and brought back to India

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The recovery and restitution of artefacts €" like those brought back from the US by Prime Minister Narendra Modi €" is a complex and lengthy process involving meticulous tracking of stolen items and joint investigations by American officials, Indian authorities and art enthusiasts, according to S Vijay Kumar, the co-founder of a group committed to recovering missing antiquities that are in high demand in the art market.

"There are some very distinguished and significant artefacts that we expected to return (to India), but (they) are sadly missing from the current crop," said Kumar, referring to the 157 artefacts that Modi brought back from the US on Sunday. "Hopefully, there will be another round of restitution in the coming weeks and months."

The artefacts, which the US handed over to the Prime Minister during his three-day trip to that country, comprise cultural treasures as well as figurines related to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. The antiquities €" made of metal, stone and terracotta €" include a 1.5-metre bas relief panel of Revanta in sandstone (10th CE) and an 8.5-cm tall bronze Nataraja (12th CE).

"As per the CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General) report of 2013, India brought back 19 antiquities between 1972 and 2000. Between 2000 and 2012, there was zero recovery. Since 2013, we have been working actively on this domain... over the past eight years, we have contributed to the majority of the 50-plus successful restitutions to India," Kumar, the co-founder of idol-tracking group India Pride Project (IPP), said.

But these recoveries are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. "Two hundred artefacts were promised to PM Modi during his June 2016 visit to America. Of them, only 11 have come back," Kumar, author of The Idol Thief, added.

He said the recent restitutions were facilitated by the "tremendous work put in by" the New York City District Attorney's office led by Colonel Matthew Bogdanos (Assistant District Attorney), Indian-origin art expert Apsara Iyer, America's customs and immigration officials and the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).

Kumar spoke at length on how his IPP €" which was born in 2014 and now has experts and enthusiasts from around the globe €" worked with US and Indian officials to bring down art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is now lodged in an Indian jail. Interpol arrested Kapoor in Germany in 2011 and sent him to India. In 2019, prosecutors in Manhattan charged him with stealing and possessing millions of dollars worth of artefacts.

In 2012, raids on 14 storage locations in New York City linked to Kapoor's Art of Past gallery in Manhattan resulted in the seizure of 2,622 artefacts €" mainly from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Pakistan and Thailand €" valued at over $108 million, Kumar said.

With Kapoor under probe, IPP €" which digitally compares photos of stolen artefacts with that of similar items that surface in museums or at auctions across the world €" stumbled upon images that a smuggling network in India was "sending to the collecting lobby consisting of dealers, collectors and auction houses", Kumar said. As the scandal unravelled, the role of a few other museums and dealers came under the scanner for alleged complicity.

Kumar said the artefacts were either stolen from Indian temples or excavation sites. He stressed that the IPP played a key role in the restitution of Virudhachalam Ardhananri and Sripuranthan Nataraja from Australia, Sripuranthan Uma from Singapore and Sripuranthan Ganesha from the US, among others.

"The recent restitution is a shot in the arm for our long-drawn battle€¦(there is) a perception that art theft in India is insignificant and that only a few artefacts have been lost," Kumar said. He rued India didn't have a proper archive for cultural treasures or a loss register €" "something which is mandated in the same 1970 UN Convention to which India is a signatory".

While major art markets in America and the European Union have started bringing in tougher regulations aimed at stricter policing and harsher penalties, India still relies on either the Customs Act 1962 or the Indian Penal Code's Section 380, which is for break-ins and carries a maximum penalty of Rs 3,000 and seven years in jail, Kumar said, highlighting the need for "better heritage laws".

Kumar said he and his IPP "hope that the restitutions do not become photo ops, but rather galvanise the establishment and custodians to go after the perpetrators of the crime". The kingpins and major intermediaries of the collection cabal are still active and engaging in looting the cultural treasures of India on a large scale, Kumar added.

"...we (IPP) want to be the deterrent and ensure that dollar-driven greed of the western world does not reduce our sacred objects to showpiece curios to be sold with price tags to adorn the swimming pools of the rich and the famous. The artefacts belong to the temples and people of India," Kumar said.

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