The return of three 1,000-year-old stone idols to India from the U.S. kindles the hope of recovering many more such stolen antiquities. Impressive detective work and persistent efforts by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations deserve commendation for this. The restitution of the three idols is a part of ICE’s ongoing efforts, and has less to do with assuaging feathers ruffled by the recent diplomatic row. In the last seven years, ICE, which was set up as a principal investigation arm of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003, has recovered more than 7,150 objects belonging to 26 countries. India benefited even on an earlier occasion. In 2006, ICE recovered a 9th century idol, which was stolen from a temple in Madhya Pradesh. To its credit, ICE in the recent case traced the trail of the stolen idols that spanned three continents and seized them when traffickers tried to move them across U.S. borders.
In contrast, the vigil for cultural objects that are moved across the Indian borders has been slack. For instance, container scanners are hardly available in Indian seaports. This has helped smugglers mix stolen idols with newly made look-alikes and ship them as handicrafts in large containers undetected. Another reason for ICE’s success is its training. Agents participate in workshops organised by the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute and familiarise themselves with specificities of the illicit antiquities trade, and methods to investigate and store antiquities. Such a focussed approach is unheard of among Indian State and Central government agencies. Another critical shortcoming is the lack of documentation. Indian authorities realised the importance of documentation in the recent episode. The Archaeological Survey of India had details of two of the three idols and alerted the Interpol in time. Unfortunately, such thoughtful actions are few and far between. The sad truth is that many antiquities remain undocumented. In 2007, the Ministry of Culture launched the National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities to complete documentation of seven million antiquities by 2010. Until 2012, it had documented only 800,000 artefacts. Worse, the NMMA put details of only 2,823 objects on its website. Since 1987, the Central government has been promising to amend the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, which mandates registration of old artefacts and prohibits their export, but it has not done much on that front. An important lesson from the return of the three idols is that unless India vastly improves protective measures and investigative infrastructure, it can neither control trafficking nor recover lost antiquities.
>>The Editorial, “Safeguarding ancient treasures” (Jan. 18, 2014), gave the abbreviation of National Mission on Monuments and Antiquities as NNMA. It should have been NMMA.