Case of the missing idols

Print edition : July 08, 2016

A Nataraja bronze, 11th century. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Nataraja, bronze, 11th century. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Goddess Uma, bronze, 11th century. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Goddess Uma, bronze, 11th century. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

AFTER the arrest of the international idol smuggler Subash Chandra Kapoor by the Tamil Nadu Police, a group of independent bloggers, investigators, heritage guardians and journalists came together to take on the responsibility of tracing the priceless antiques that had been plundered and taken abroad years ago.

The India Pride Project is an active online volunteers group that knits individual activists who surf relentlessly on social media to trace and nail antique smugglers in India. They claim to have built a volunteer-sourced image archives of Indian art works that have been housed in museums, galleries and auction houses in other countries.

Their main objective is to restore the valuables to the places they belong to. The group has tasted a fair amount of success in this endeavour by ensuring the return of a few Indian bronzes and sculptures from the U.S. and Australia. “But we still have many more items in the godowns and museums abroad, especially in the U.S.,” said Vijay Kumar, a member in the group.

The group, Vijay Kumar said, has played a vital role in tracing missing treasures and ascertaining the genuineness of provenance certificates, which idol smugglers fabricate before sale. “We provided documentary and visual evidence to establish that the Ardhanareeswarar statue found in the Australian museum was a stolen piece from the Vriddachalam temple in Tamil Nadu,” he said.

He and his team have been trying to trace four missing bronzes of the Chola period that figured in the art catalogues of the Subash Kapoor-owned Art of the Past gallery in Manhattan. Vijay Kumar alleged that Kapoor, while facing trial in an idol theft case in Tamil Nadu, had instructed his sister, Sushma Sareen (59), to shift the four pieces to a hideout.

The Department of Homeland Security in the U.S., while charging her of felony on four counts for the “criminal possession of stolen property in the first degree” in 2013, said the “defendant knowingly possessed stolen property with a value in excess of one million dollars with intent to benefit a person other than the owner of the property”. The idols, two bronze idols of Nataraja, and two of Goddess Uma, all belonging to the 11th century and worth about $14 million, are now missing even in the U.S. Vijay Kumar said that while the origin of the place of one of the two Nataraja idols remains untraced, the other idols were traced to the Varadaraja Perumal Temple at Suthamalli village in Tamil Nadu in 2008. Sushma Sareen denied the charges and was released on bail for $10,000.

Ilangovan Rajasekaran

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