One more stolen idol from India, this time a Chola bronze statue of Saint Manikkavachakar worth at least a million dollars on the open market, was recovered by U.S. authorities in the unravelling saga of the international idol theft ring allegedly masterminded by Subhash Kapoor.
The New York field office of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in said on Wednesday that an anonymous collector of Asian antiquities, believed to be a victim of fraud in this instance, “voluntarily surrendered a stolen 11-12th century Chola bronze”. The cultural property unit of the federal agency had determined that the item had been looted from the Sivan Temple in Sripuranthan Village in Ariyalur District, Tamil Nadu.
The latest seizure by ICE comes on the back of at least three years of investigations and multiple idol recoveries, which The Hindu has in the past reported >extensively and with >exclusive first-look photographs.
Numerous photographs of the bronze relic, which officials here described as “a religious idol and priceless to its worshippers,” have been made available to The Hindu this week via special arrangement with the Indian Consulate General in New York City.
According to officials the collector paid somewhere between $650,000-$750,000 for the statue in 2006, on the basis of a false provenance provided with the piece in a fraudulent attempt to pre-date the idol’s theft.
However numerous such false provenances provided by Kapoor, who operated through his shadowy “Art of the Past Gallery,” in New York, have become regular targets of the ICE investigation dubbed Operation Hidden Idol.
Under Hidden Idol, U.S. agents have repeatedly used the methodology of backtracking an artefact to its theft site and mapping it to the smuggling methods deployed, an approach that, to date, has led to the recovery of over 2,500 artefacts worth over $100 million.
While some have already been >handed over to India, many are stuck in an ICE warehouse in the New York area and may not be returned for years as they gather dust awaiting clearance after legal and procedural hurdles on the U.S. side are cleared.
It may be but a sliver of solace that Kapoor is in prison in Chennai, awaiting trial on charges of looting and smuggling.
In part, the difficulty that U.S. and Indian authorities are facing in recovering the stolen idols is that some collector-organisations are reluctant to part with the items they possess until convinced beyond a shadow of doubt of its illicit provenance.
However, in a sign that awareness of the Kapoor gang’s activities may be changing the attitude of these collectors, ICE noted this week that in the past three months two domestic museums, the Honolulu Museum and Peabody Essex, partnered with Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) to surrender illicit cultural property stemming from Kapoor.
Reflecting some of the complex challenge of securing the cooperation of museums and galleries in recovering the remaining artefacts Raymond Parmer, Special Agent in charge of HSI said, “The theft of another country’s cultural property is a terrible crime that robs a nation of its national heritage… We commend this collector for his conscious decision to return this stolen idol.”
Indian Consul General Dnyaneshwar Mulay underscored the need to press on with the investigation until all idols stolen by this international smuggling ring were recovered.
“I look forward to a lasting partnership between HSI and the Government of India’s law enforcement agencies to more actively pursue individuals and syndicates involved in these transnational crimes,” he said.