Handover signals thaw in bilateral frost caused by Devyani Khobragade crisis

The U.S. handover to India this week, of idols worth more than $1.5m stolen from temples in Rajasthan, and Bihar or West Bengal, marked what seemed to be a gradual thaw in bilateral frost following a month-long diplomatic crisis.

In a repatriation ceremony at the New York Consulate of India, where the diplomat at the centre of the crisis, Devyani Khobragade, used to work, the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement (ICE)’s Homeland Security Investigations (HIS) on Tuesday returned two sandstone sculptures of “Vishnu and Lakshmi,” respectively weighing 159 and 272 kg.

The two antique carvings were said to have been purloined from the Gadgach Temple in Atru, Rajasthan, in 2009, following which the Archaeological Survey of India that in turn joined hands with ICE and Interpol in an investigation that is still in progress.

While no suspects were named by officials in New York, they firmly ruled out that the elaborate idol theft network being investigated was in any way connected to Subhash Kapoor, the alleged mastermind behind a much larger trove of stolen artefacts seized in the U.S. in July 2012.

A third, black sandstone sculpture of a Bodhisattava, a popular subject in Buddhist art, was also returned to the Indian government, and was said to date back to the 11th or early 12th century from either the Indian State of Bihar or West Bengal.

New Delhi and Washington witnessed an uptick in diplomatic hostilities following the arrest and strip search of Ms. Khobragade on December 12, 2013 a crisis that culminated in her criminal indictment for visa fraud and dramatic departure to India under immunity from a new role at the United Nations.

However on Tuesday Indian and U.S. officials were warm in their expressions of gratitude for cooperation in the case against the idol thieves, with HSI Executive Director James Dinkins saying, “The excellent cooperation between India and the U.S. led to the recovery and return of these priceless antiquities.”

Similarly Indian Consul-General Dnyaneshwar Mulay said, “The successful investigations and repatriation of these cultural artefacts underscores the importance of growing institutional partnership, which is of great significance to both countries.”

Speaking after the formal signing of a handover agreement along with Mr. Dinkins, Mr. Mulay said that coming from a village he was aware of how important such idols of deities were for the people of the local area, who were used to seeing the idols in temples as part of their daily routines or during pilgrimages.

“I’d like really to express very heartfelt gratitude to U.S. authorities for having invested so much time, energy and resources in obtaining, securing and now helping us repatriate these [idols] to the place where they belong,” he added.

Complex journey

Although no connection was suggested to the smuggling network allegedly run by Kapoor, the idols returned this week followed a similarly complex journey through Asia and Europe to Kapoor’s network, including Thailand, Hong Kong and London.

With sources indicating to The Hindu that preliminary intelligence on the artefacts came from the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence in India, law enforcement from multiple countries were involved in tracking their movement, initially to Hong Kong in early 2010.

From there one of the sandstone Vishnu-Lakshmi statues was shipped to a dealer in Thailand, and then re-sold to a buyer in London, who in turn moved them to New York City for an exhibition in March 2010. HSI agents intercepted the pieces as they were about to be re-shipped to London.

One of these statues was said to be listed as sixth among the Top 10 Most Wanted Works of Art of Interpol, having been stolen between 18 and 19 September 2009, made by an unknown artist and measuring 90 by 56 cm.

In July 2010 the second sculpture was also seized, after it had been transported to Hong Kong, then sold to a buyer in New York and finally shipped to another buyer in Basel, Switzerland. The black sandstone Bodhisattava similarly wound up in New York with false papers declaring the United Kingdom as its country of origin.

Although several years have passed since the seizure of these idols ICE follows a lengthy process for cataloguing seized items, including determining their true origin for repatriation.

According to sources the same applies to a large number of artefacts seized from the smuggling network linked to Kapoor, and it may be that they are returned to India only after he has been prosecuted.

Until such time the idols are said to be held at a facility only known as “the fortress,” where a large number of idols from other countries are also currently being held along with idols stolen from India.

The investigation for the sandstone idols handed over to India on Tuesday was said to still be in an “early stage.” No arrests have been made yet on the Indian side in this case, although the theft is being considered a violation of the Indian Customs and Antiquities Acts.