Idol Wing steps up efforts to retrieve 16 antique idols from the United States

Assistance under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty has been sought for their repatriation; they were stolen or went missing from four Chola-era temples in Tamil Nadu and were traced to foreign museums and art galleries using photographs documented by the French Institute of Pondicherry

June 24, 2023 08:23 pm | Updated June 25, 2023 12:04 am IST - CHENNAI

The Idol Wing CID (IW CID) of the Tamil Nadu Police, with assistance from authorities of the United States (U.S.), has taken a major step in retrieving 16 high-value antique idols that were stolen or went missing from four Chola-era temples in the State and were recently traced to museums and art galleries in the U.S. 

Additional Director General of Police, IW CID, Shailesh Kumar Yadav, told The Hindu: “We are in touch with U.S. authorities, including Homeland Security and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, to bring the idols back to our country, and soon, they will be returned to the temples.”

The idols were taken from the Veeratteswarar Swami temple in Korukkai village, Mayiladuthurai; Nareeswarar temple in Veeracholapuram village, Kallakurichi; and Venugopala Swami and Viswanatha Swami temples in Alathur village, Mannarkudi.

Mr. Yadav said: “Our investigation officers have visited these temples and examined available details. After gathering evidence/documents pertaining to the stolen idols, we forwarded them to the agencies concerned for further action through Indian authorities in the U.S. We learnt that they have located the whereabouts of the items.”

The investigators approached the French Institute of Pondicherry (IFP) to gather the photos of the idols documented there. After obtaining the pictures, the IW CID formed special teams to search for the pieces in museums/art galleries worldwide. After an exhaustive search, the teams were able to locate the idols resembling the missing ones on the display shelves of museums and art galleries in the United States.

According to the police, six exquisite Chola-era bronzes – Shiva, Parvathi, Nataraja, Sundarar and Paravai Nachiyar, Veenadhara/Dhakshinamurthy and Nandikeshwarar – which went missing from the Veeracholapuram Sivan temple in the 1960s, were spotted at the Cleveland Museum and Christie’s Auction House in the U.S.

In 2007, an employee of the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment (HR and CE), Mannargudi, lodged a complaint with the Vikrapandiyam police station in Thiruvarur alleging that three metal idols – Vishnu, Sridevi and Bhudevi – belonging to the Venugopala Swamy temple, which were in another temple’s (Viswanatha Swamy temple) custody for safekeeping, had been stolen. The investigation also revealed that the three idols had been replaced with replicas at the time of the theft.

Six more idols were stolen from one of the temples several years ago. The IW CID traced these idols that were displayed at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Nelson Atkins Museum, Norton Simon, Christie’s auction house, Freer Sackler and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mr. Yadav said: “These temples are ancient and the idols that were stolen are of high value. The temple authorities did not photograph and document the idols during that period. After registering cases, the IW CID has collected documents and comparison reports. The photo images collected from IFP can prove irrefutably that these idols belong to the respective temples. The available records clearly prove the provenance. We have already sought assistance under the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) through the Union government for repatriation of these idols. We have requested the authorities concerned to hand over those idols to the rightful owners i.e., the people of Tamil Nadu.”

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