‘Claim flawed, Australian gallery is keeping stolen idol’

March 09, 2014 12:27 am | Updated November 16, 2021 11:10 pm IST - Chennai:

The Tamil Nadu police have rubbished the National Gallery of Australia’s claim that the 1000-year-old Nataraja idol in its possession is not a stolen one. The NGA has refused to return the idol for this reason.

In a recent interview to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, NGA Director Ron Radford said the dancing Shiva idol bought by the Gallery did not look the same as the stolen one and the “measurements [of the two idols] are different.” Mr. Radford had purchased the idol from Subhash Kapoor, U.S.-based antiquities dealer currently lodged in a Chennai prison.

Though he admitted that the NGA was “conned” by Mr. Kapoor and provided false ownership documents, Mr. Radfor refused to accept that he bought a stolen idol. Those familiar with the investigations wonder how the idol could be bona fide if the documents are fabricated.

Police sources say seven features match among the idol displayed in the NGA, the photograph of the idol taken by the French Institute of Pondicherry in 1994 at the Sripuranthan temple in Ariyalur district, and the photograph recovered from Kapoor’s phone. This information has been sent to the Australian authorities. Another 30-year-old photograph of the idol, recently obtained by the police from Sripuranthan, also confirms this. In addition, the pedestal of the idol, which was removed after it was stolen, has been detected and recovered.

The investigators have also picked another hole in the NGA’s ownership documents. The papers released by it state the Nataraja idol was in the Fine Art Museum in the Red Fort Arcade in Delhi in 1970. The police have found that such a shop never existed at the door number provided. This has raised serious doubts about the NGA’s verification process before the purchase.

Apart form these supportive pieces of evidence, the confession and conviction of Aaron Freedman, a long time associate of Kapoor, establish beyond doubt that the idol in the NGA was stolen from Tamil Nadu, say the investigators.

In December 2013, Freedman pleaded guilty to six criminal charges, one of them specific to the Nataraja idol sold to the NGA, brought against him by the Manhattan District Attorney in the Supreme Court of New York. The criminal complaint clearly mentioned that this idol was stolen from Ariyalur district and later shipped to Australia from New York.

By refusing to return the idol, the NGA is retaining a stolen property, an offence under the Indian law, said police sources. Section 411 of the Indian Penal Code makes clear that such possession would attract a maximum of three years in prison, they added.

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