Claim antique value to newly made collectibles

The police said law breakers in the antique trade used cleverly forged Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) certificates to palm off recently crafted curios to private collectors at exaggerated prices.

Investigators attached to the Temple Theft Investigation Team (Crime Branch) said such cheating was common at tourist destinations and those duped were mostly foreigners.

They said forged ASI certificates were used to convince potential buyers of the “antiquity and aesthetic value” of a whole range of collectibles, including “newly” made stone sculptures, terracotta figurines, tiles and vessels, metal objects, curios fashioned out of camel bone, woodwork and traditional kitchen utensils.

Investigators said the racket came to light when they arrested two persons from Vellarada, near here, in March on the charge of attempting to sell a metallic “dancing Ganesha idol” of disputed antiquity.

The police had approached the suspects posing as agents of a foreign collector. They said the accused produced a “Certificate of Registration of Antiquity”, issued by the ASI in 2010 under Section 16 of the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972, to convince them that the idol was the ancestral property of a family in Bihar.

They also showed the plainclothesmen documents “proving” that the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Mumbai, had conducted Atomic Mass Spectroscopy and Radio Carbon Dating tests on the idol.

They claimed it was made of a rare alloy of gold, platinum, copper and iridium and produced an ASI certificate “testifying” that the idol was 2,900 years old.

The subsequent police investigation found the ASI certificate was a “brilliant” forgery. The police were yet to trace the source of the idol or establish its antiquity, if any.

Investigators said the Interpol had recently listed an importer of Indian artefacts based in New York as one of the main recipients of idols and relics stolen from India. His method of operation was to import stolen idols as newly crafted curious of no antique value.

The police said an antique dealer based in Chennai and his agent in Puducherry worked for the importer and ran a network of thieves who specialized in idol theft.

They said at least three major gangs specialized in idol theft and their method of operation was to bury the stolen idol till their “handlers” found them buyers.

In 2010, as many as 226 thefts were reported from temples in Kerala. However, only in a few instances, such as the theft in 2009 of a Shiva Linga idol from the Adi Sankara Janmabhoomi temple at Kalady in Ernakulam district, were idols stolen. Most of the “temple theft” cases related to breaking into offering boxes.