As trial is set to start in Subhash Kapoor case, pursuit of Sripuranthan idol faces new hurdles

The fate of an exquisite Nataraja idol stolen from a Tamil Nadu temple and believed to have been smuggled out, hangs in the balance, and observers say it could well become a lost cause unless political-diplomatic pressure is applied at the governmental level. The issue appears to be caught in a procedural logjam.

The Tamil Nadu Police Department’s efforts to retrieve the 1000-year-old Nataraja sculpture that was allegedly sold to the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, has hit a new stumbling block, with the Gallery seemingly reluctant to extend its cooperation in the major effort to fight antiquities-related crimes. Although a letter rogatory was sent six months ago and officers of the Tamil Nadu Police spoke directly to Australian authorities, the Gallery had not shared any information or extended any help, informed police sources said.

In an amazing turn of events, in emails to this correspondent also Gallery officials have denied receiving any requests from any Indian official or the Tamil Nadu Police — although it is not difficult to prove otherwise.

Last year, police investigations had unravelled the involvement of an international network in the theft of 18 ancient bronze sculptures from two temples in Suthamali and Sripuranthan in Tamil Nadu. The trail led to Subhash Chandra Kapoor, a U.S.-based antiquities dealer, who was identified as the brain behind the clever operation. Kapoor was arrested in Germany and extradited to India in July 2012; currently he is lodged in a Chennai prison.

The police have completed the interrogation and filed a charge sheet. The trial is expected to start soon.

Police sources told The Hindu that their investigation found a visual match between the Nataraja idol stolen from Sriupranthan temple and the one in the Australian capital’s National Gallery. In 2008, the Gallery had bought an 11th century Nataraja sculpture from Subhash Kapoor.

The police have shipping details and related documents of some of the antiquities traded by Subash Kapoor and wanted to verify the antecedents of the Nataraja idol in Australia. A letter rogatory was sent about six months ago seeking more information. Police sources also said they had had telephone conversations with Australian officials. But no assistance has been forthcoming.

In a reply to the e-mail sent by The Hindu on March 25, a spokesperson for the National Gallery said: “We have still not been contacted by the police or any other authority regarding this matter,” adding that “they are fully prepared to cooperate.”

But the Gallery was tight-lipped about the names of the previous owners of the Nataraja sculpture and any verification of the provenance certificate. A provenance certificate records details of successive owners of an artefact.

Tamil Nadu police sources reconfirmed they had sent the request letter months ago and were surprised to hear that the National Gallery had denied the fact. When The Hindu got in touch with the National Gallery again a few days ago, Gallery officials said they could “categorically confirm” that they had not received a letter rogatory and that “no staff member at the Gallery has had discussions with police regarding this matter [purchase of Nataraja sculpture].”

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