For more than 20 years, those who lived in and around the village of Lokhari in Uttar Pradesh, India, have prayed for the return of an important statue of a goddess that was stolen from a local temple. Now those prayers have been answered. The 8th-century goat-headed deity has been discovered thousands of miles away – in an English country garden, covered in moss.
The sculpture will be formally given to the High Commission of India in London. It is a case that shames Sotheby’s, which offered the statue for sale in 1988, a few years before the auctioneer was to face serious allegations of having encouraged looting of ancient Indian religious sites.
The recovery has been made possible by Christopher Marinello, a leading expert in recovering stolen, looted and missing art. “This piece is considered a god, not just a sculpture,” he said. “Looted objects are not simply financial assets for collectors and auction houses to profit from.”
Vijay Kumar, co-founder of the India Pride Project, dedicated to recovering stolen religious artefacts, said: “It’s such a unique sculpture. It’s been a dream to find her. I was actually beginning to lose hope.”
Both men criticised Sotheby’s for offering it as lot 92 in its London auction of 14 November 1988. It was estimated to fetch around £15,000. Today, its value would be far higher, not that it could be sold legitimately.
In 1997, the statue was among looted antiquities featured in the former Observer journalist Peter Watson’s damning book, titled Sotheby’s: Inside Story. He and investigators from the Channel 4 Dispatches programme also secretly filmed Indian dealers claiming that they had supplied an entire container-load of objects, some of which were sold at Sotheby’s in London.
It led to the auction house ending regular antiquities sales in London and tightening up procedures to ensure it would not handle an item if there was a suspicion it might have been looted abroad.
The goat-headed deity was among yogini – female religious figures – that went missing between 1979 and 1982. Originally part of a temple, they had stood on a hill near Lokhari.
Watson wrote that the site once had 20 sandstone images of gods, each roughly five feet high and with animal heads. He quoted Vidya Dehejia, then curator at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, as saying: “Villagers report that in recent years a number were carted away in trucks by vandals.”
Watson added that Dehejia had reproduced the goat in her book, Yogini: Cult and Temples: “It was identical to lot 92.” He said the smuggler was “someone who Sotheby’s had ample reason to believe trafficked in illegally excavated and/or stolen antiquities smuggled out of their country of origin”.
Asked whether the piece had actually sold in 1988, Kumar said: “Sotheby’s, as I understand, pulled this from their auction, though that is still unclear. What was shocking was that they did not reveal the consignor or turn over the details to the Metropolitan police, even during the investigations in 1998, when Watson broke the story.
“And, more shockingly still, is that it could remain in the UK for over two decades after being listed as stolen and missing in his book.”
Marinello, a lawyer and founder of Art Recovery International, has recovered nearly £400m-worth of art on behalf of museums, governments and religious institutions, among others. He expressed dismay at the lack of help from Sotheby’s: “I wrote to them. They were wholly uncooperative.”
He added: “My goal is to call out Sotheby’s for selling loot but more importantly to highlight the countless looted objects in English gardens and collections related to colonial history. Collectors should come forward – sort of an amnesty – through us, and we will guarantee them anonymity. Otherwise, they risk embarrassment or legal seizure in the future when they or their heirs attempt to sell the loot in the marketplace.”
The sculpture was rediscovered after the owner, who wants to remain anonymous, decided to sell her home. The sculpture was in the garden when she bought it 15 years ago. She immediately ensured that the sculpture would be returned unconditionally.
A spokesman for the High Commission of India paid tribute to Marinello’s pro bono work and described the loss of such antiquities as very painful: “These are our ancient heritage. When pieces go missing from temples, it creates a void.”
Sotheby’s said: “This episode relates to something that allegedly occurred almost quarter of a century ago. Sotheby’s adheres to the highest standards in the industry, supported by a world-class compliance team, who work closely with outside authorities to ensure that we operate to the highest level of business integrity.”