How stolen art sleuths India Pride Project found 265 artifacts


New Delhi: The serious threat of erasure of the material heritage seems to have created an atmosphere of restitution. India Pride Project, a non-profit group of art lovers that uses archival documents, social media and advocacy to find stolen Indian artifacts and ensure their return, takes the initiative to recover lost treasures from India.

They recently helped return a 3rd century limestone artefact from the ruined stupas of Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh, which is in the process of being returned to India from Belgium. Earlier, they helped bring home the 500-year-old bronze idol of Hanuman stolen in Tamil Nadu in 2013.

While IPP has been tracking idols on their own since 2014, their latest project is a joint effort with UK-based company Art Recovery International (ARI).

Here’s how it happened: The limestone sculpture was kept in an Indian museum until 1995, when it was stolen. It was last photographed in the 1990s by an art historian who contacted IPP last year after discovering the piece was being offered for sale at a Belgian art fair.

According to IPP co-founder S Vijay Kumar, the buyer had relied on a certificate of clearance from a UK-based organization that establishes such ‘documentation’ instead of doing due diligence . In January this year, Kumar informed ARI founder Christopher Marinello and his team of the sale, encouraging them to track down the buyer and negotiating an unconditional handover of the artwork to the Indian government.

On March 11, the sculpture was officially handed over to Indian Ambassador to Belgium Santosh Jha. It is expected to reach India after approval of insurance and export permits.

When asked which Indian museum the sculpture was in until 1995, Marinello told ThePrint: “I cannot name the museum at this time as law enforcement in India are investigating the theft. .”

The limestone relic is just one of more than 265 stolen Indian artifacts that IPP has helped return to India. Some artifacts, like a 500-year-old Hanuman idol, were auctioned abroad for tens of thousands of rupees before being returned to India.

According to a 2018 government audit, between 1992 and 2017, 4,408 items were stolen from 3,676 protected monuments across India. The actual figure is estimated to be more than three times that number.

Read also : Ancient sculpture stolen from Indian museum to take home

Hunt down Hanuman’s idol

On February 22, a 500-year-old bronze Hanuman idol stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu returned to India, after being auctioned off in New York and acquired by a buyer in Australia.

The idol is believed to have sold for a whopping Rs 27.9 lakhs ($37,500) at Christie’s Auctions, a renowned auction house in New York in 2015.

It was reportedly smuggled from a temple in Ariyalur district of Tamil Nadu in 2013, an area prone to incidents of idol theft. However, it wouldn’t have taken nearly a decade to return to India if the local police hadn’t closed the case prematurely, Kumar told ThePrint.

“The theft took place in 2013. Then in 2014, the local police in Tamil Nadu classified the case as untraceable. If the case had been opened, we could have stopped the auction in 2015,” he said.

Tracking down the idol was a long process. In 2018, Kumar came across an eerily familiar Hanuman idol while browsing through the archives of the French Institute of Pondicherry (IFP) which has an extensive database of clicked photographs of idols in Tamil Nadu temples from 1956 to 1999. .

He saw a photo of the idol, which he later cross-referenced from Christie’s website. In early 2019, Kumar along with the Tamil Nadu Police Special Idol Wing began working with law enforcement in the United States.

“I was shocked when I found out the theft case was closed in 2014. [Indian] police stations are ranked by open FIRs and to show off their performance, they hastily close cases which ultimately hinders proper investigation. There were three bronze statues, including one of Lord Vishnu, which were stolen in the same robbery which is still missing. The State and the Center must work to reopen all these closed FIRs for idol thefts and work with us,” Kumar said.

Tamil Nadu Idol Wing Police Additional Deputy Superintendent Rajaram told ThePrint that further investigation into the theft of Hanuman’s idol is underway to determine what else was missing.

Kumar and his team were instrumental in identifying the artifact, confirming its location and tracking it down, Rajaram added.

Read also : Ancient Statues, Scrolls, Portraits – Full List of 29 Antiquities Australia Returned to India

A group of dedicated volunteers

Founded in 2014, IPP is a group of volunteers dedicated to restoring the pride of India by returning stolen items, through research, legislative intervention and advocacy.

It all started as a small group led by Kumar, 48, a shipping company executive currently living in Chennai, in 2006. Kumar, who has studied the field of Indian art and iconography since the early 2000s, created the team to document and study neglected Indian heritage sites. During trips to these sites, they learned of many thefts and began to focus on the illicit art market and the sale of smuggled Indian art in world markets.

In 2008-2009, the team began working with law enforcement agencies in India and abroad who requested the group’s expertise. In 2013, Kumar met Singapore-based Anuraag Saxena, the group’s other co-founder, and a year later the IPP was officially formed.

IPP now has 30 to 40 regular contributors and nearly 400 volunteers. Field volunteers are tasked with clicking images of heritage sites or scanning certain books and archival documents. This helps in locating the foreign places where the contraband works of art are.

The group has a significant number of volunteers from among the Indian diaspora in the UK. Pritesh Patel, a third generation British-Indian and dedicated IPP volunteer, was quoted by Vice as saying: “We as a generation are established now… As a young British Indian I see it as [participating in] a global conversation around decolonization.

Read also : Stolen idol of ‘Avalokiteshwara Padamapani’ found: Indian consulate in Milan

“India has lost 10,000 major works of art every decade”

The 500-year-old idol of Hanuman is just one of many stolen artifacts that IPP has helped find and repatriate to India. He helped return a 1,200-year-old Buddha idol from Bihar that resurfaced in Italy, 14 works of art from the National Gallery of Australia that were attributed to notorious art smuggler Subhash Kapoor, and even a 10th century goat-headed yogini statue from Britain.

India has lost around 10,000 major works of art every decade since the 1950s, according to Kumar’s estimates, and so whatever has been recovered so far might just be the tip of the iceberg.

Sanjeev Sanyal, a senior economic adviser to the Indian government and close friend of Kumar, also helped the group access old flight records, contact relevant government authorities and cut red tape.

“I first met Vijay through a friend of ours who is currently the Chief Economic Advisor, Anantha Nageswaran. We met at Anantha in Singapore in 2010-2011 where Vijay actually gave a presentation on hunting down stolen idols. Since then, I have helped the IPP in every way I can,” Sanyal told ThePrint.

Sanyal was also instrumental in identifying a particular artefact – a 12th-century Buddha statue stolen from a museum in Nalanda, Bihar, which was returned by the UK government in 2018.

“It was around 2017-2018 when I met the former Director General of Archaeological Survey of India, Dr Biswas. He had come to meet me for another job and we started talking about the issue of stolen idols. Then he presented me with photographs of some statues stolen in 1961 and 1962 which I passed on to Vijay who eventually found a statue in the possession of a London-based art dealer,” Sanyal added. .

The main markets for these stolen items are mainly the UK, EU and US, Kumar said.

(Edited by: Manoj Ramachandran)

Read also : 10th century stone idol of Yogini with goat’s head removed from temple UP being returned: Govt


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