Three antique bronze idols that were stolen from Soundararaja Perumal temple at Sundara Perumalkovil village near Kumbakonam 60 years ago have now been traced by the Idol Wing CID to museums and an auction house in the U.S. The authorities have also initiated the process for their restitution.
On February 12, 2020, Ka. Raja, executive officer, Hindu Religious & Charitable Endowments (HR&CE) Department, associated with the temple, lodged a complaint with the Idol Wing CID, alleging that miscreants had stolen an antique idol of Thirumangai Alwar and replaced it with a fake one. He believed it was stolen between 1957 and 1967.
Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) P. Chandrasekaran, who was nominated to investigate the case, visited the area and examined witnesses. Meanwhile, an independent scholar informed the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, U.K., that a sculpture of Thirumangai Alwar at the museum could be a stolen one, based on an archival image of the idol that he had in his possession and the presence of the same sculpture in the temple.
Later, it transpired that in 1967, the Ashmolean Museum had purchased the bronze idol at an auction by Sotheby's in London for £850, from a collector named J.R. Belmont. By the time the Idol Wing submitted papers to the U.S. government for the idol's return, the museum had already decided to take proactive steps to recover it, Idol Wing officers said.
Sources said they sent senior curator and keeper of the Eastern Art Department of the museum, Dr. M.K. Landrus, to Kumbakonam a couple of months ago to find out the truth through field enquiries regarding the idol's journey from Kumbakonam to the Ashmolean Museum.
K. Jayanth Murali, Director-General of Police, Idol Wing CID, said the theft of the original idol of Thirumangai Alwar also raised suspicion about other idols at the temple. “Therefore, we investigated the other idols, but by that time, the idols were shifted to the Icon Centre [for safekeeping].”
The investigating officer approached the French Institute of Pondicherry (IFP) for the images of the idols and obtained them. When the officer took the images to the Icon Centre and compared them with the idols from Soundararaja Perumal temple that were kept there, three other idols - Kalinganarthana Krishna, Vishnu and Sridevi - looked different from those featured in the images obtained from IFP, he said.
The three idols at the Icon Centre looked like modern replicas of the original idols, which probably meant that the original idols had been stolen. The report from experts also confirmed that they were fake, he added.
The Kalinganarthana Krishna idol has been traced to Asian Art Museum, San Francisco; the Vishnu idol to Kimbell Art Museum, Texas; and the Sridevi idol to Hills Auction Gallery, Florida.
"Hills Auction Gallery had auctioned the idol. We are taking steps through proper channels to recover all three idols," Mr. Murali said.
S.Vijay Kumar, an art enthusiast and co-founder of India Pride, said, "The case of Sundaraperumalkovil village should serve as a reminder of how looters made exact fakes and stole the original bronze idols. It is also a case [highlighting the need] for all other temple custodians to check their idols for fakes, [the prevalence of] which seems to have been rampant in the 1960s."