19th century painting of Raja Serfoji, son stolen from Thanjavur Saraswathi Mahal traced to U.S. museum 

The painting was purchased in 2006 from an international antique dealer Subash Kapoor

July 21, 2022 03:18 pm | Updated 05:09 pm IST - CHENNAI

The painting of Raja Serfoji and his son Sivaji stolen from Saraswathi Mahal, Thanjavur

The painting of Raja Serfoji and his son Sivaji stolen from Saraswathi Mahal, Thanjavur | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

  A rare 19th century painting of Raja Serfoji and his son Sivaji, which was stolen from Saraswathi Mahal, Thanjavur, a few years ago has been traced by Idol Wing CID police to the Peabody Essex Museum, Massachusetts, USA. The painting was purchased in 2006 from an international antique dealer Subash Kapoor who was arrested by the State police in 2011 on charges of smuggling several antiques/artefacts.  

Director General of Police,(DGP) Idol Wing CID K. Jayanth Murali told The Hindu, "The rare painting was reportedly stolen years ago. But a complaint was lodged only recently. We have traced the painting in the U.S. and registered a case against Subash Kapoor who is the mastermind behind the theft. We will take him into custody to identify the other accused involved in the offence." 

Originally, Idol Wing CID received a complaint from Elephant G. Rajendran in 2017 about  the disappearance of the painting of Raja Serfoji and his son Sivaji from Saraswathi Mahal. After the registration of a case, the Idol Wing CID took up investigation. There was no breakthrough in the investigation initially and later the investigation was expedited by the officers led by Mr. Murali. 

Background of the painting 

For long, the rulers of Thanjavur had been devoid of absolute  power. Serfoji, placed by the British on the throne over his step brother Amar Singh, died in 1832. His only son Sivaji ruled until 1855. However, he had no male successor. Thanjavur became a casualty of Lord Dalhousie's infamous 'Doctrine of Lapse', and it got absorbed into British-ruled Indian provinces. The painting, which has Raja Serfoji and his  youthful son, according to some historians, was probably painted between 1822 and 1827 and kept in the Saraswathi Mahal. In 1918, the Saraswathi Mahal Library was opened to the public. Efforts were made to microfilm and catalogue the contents in 1965 when Indira Gandhi, who was then Information and Broadcasting Minister, sanctioned the fund for the library's development. Despite this, there exists no record to show the disappearance of the painting from the mahal. 

Investigation into the theft 

When there was no progress in the case, the Idol wing officers decided to check the museums and websites of antique collectors abroad. While doing so, they found that the 19th-century painting had been purchased by the Peabody Essex Museum in 2006. Further, it revealed that the museum had purchased the painting from Subash Kapoor for $35,000. PEM is one of several major art institutions worldwide that had purchased items from art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who was arrested in 2011 at the Frankfurt airport on charges of trafficking in stolen antiques from India.

The DGP Idol Wing CID said, "It turns out that through Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) PEM had learned that a mid-19th century Tanjore portrait in its collection, which they had acquired from Subhash Kapoor's New York gallery in 2006, had falsified provenance. The Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor and his girlfriend Selina Mohamed had participated in a decades-long conspiracy and laundered stolen antiquities by creating false ownership histories. They had used the name of Leo Figiel, a collector of Indian art who died in 2013. Figiel provided Kapoor with this false letter claiming he acquired the artefacts from "a European collection in 1969.

“PEM, upon knowing from HSI investigations that the painting was a stolen piece of art with falsified provenance, took a decision and handed over the Serfoji painting to the Department of Homeland Security as part of the government’s ongoing investigation into an alleged international art fraud enterprise. “As decided, the PEM had handed over the painting of Serfoji to HSI way back in 2015, which our investigation has just revealed. It’s surprising that despite Homeland Security’s readiness to return the painting in 2015 to India, no steps have been taken so far to bring it back to Tamil Nadu.

"Through proper investigation, we have successfully traced the painting through Homeland Security in the USA. Now, the wing has initiated steps to bring the painting of Serfoji back to Saraswathi Mahal by proving the ownership through documents. Further enquiries with the authorities concerned have confirmed our findings. We hope to retrieve the painting and restore it to the Saraswathi Mahal library under the UNESCO treaty soon. The wing has initiated steps to restore the painting to the library."

Also read: First copy of Tamil Bible stolen from Saraswathi Mahal Library traced to London

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