India asks Oxford museum to return ‘stolen’ 15th century statue

Bessie Yuill
Oxford University/Ashmolean Museum

The Indian government has issued a formal request for the return of a 15th century bronze idol from the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.

The Guardian reports that an independent scholar’s research appears to show that the statue of the saint Tirumankau Alvar was stolen from the Sri Soundarrajaperumal temple in Tamil Nadu, where it had been photographed in 1957, and replaced with a replica.

A spokesman for the Indian High Commission, Rahul Nangare, said a police report from Tamil Nadu “unambiguously shows that the original idol has been stolen and replaced with a fake one, and that the stolen idol is the same one that is presently with the Ashmolean”.

Nangare thanked the Ashmolean “for taking proactive steps in this matter” and said he hopes that “other museums would follow the example in dealing with suspected stolen pieces of our cultural heritage”.

The Ashmolean museum bought the idol, which is almost one metre tall and depicts Tamil poet-saint Tirumankai Alvar, from Sotheby’s in 1967.

A spokeswoman for the Ashmolean said there had been no claim against the sculpture. “According to the Sotheby’s catalogue the bronze was sold from the collection of Dr JR Belmont (1886-1981),” she said.

“We currently have no indication of how the bronze entered his collection and we are continuing to investigate with the support of the Indian high commission.”

The Ashmolean said that the scholar’s research had also raised questions over the provenance of several other bronzes in collections in Europe and the US.

A museum official is scheduled to visit India shortly as part of the investigation.

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