Last month, Australia repatriated 29 artefacts dating back to the ninth or 10th century that had been stolen from India.
The religious and cultural artefacts included Chola-era bronzes, Jain sculptures, photographs and paintings. Most intriguingly, a 500-year-old bronze idol of Lord Hanuman, the monkey god, stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu that was built in the 14th century was found in the possession of a private buyer in Australia after being auctioned off at Christie’s.
Few people know that behind these repatriations are the efforts of a citizen initiative called the India Pride Project, a global network of volunteers and enthusiasts who work together to recover India’s stolen art and artefacts.
The project was formed in 2014 by Vijay Kumar and Anuraag Saxena, both chartered accountants living in Singapore. This group of amateur sleuths uses social media to help look for stolen pieces and it’s part of a growing movement worldwide prompting museums, art collectors and world leaders to repatriate looted items to the countries that own them.
India is one of the oldest civilisations in the world and has some great cultural and artistic treasures in its museums, places of worship and monuments. But countless artefacts, idols and paintings have been stolen over past decades, making their way into private collections, museums and art galleries abroad.
“In the past our heritage laws have been weak, and India has been lax in going after stolen art and statues,” Kumar says. “Punishment should act as a deterrent – there’s a maximum sentence of three-year imprisonment and a fine of just Rs 2,000 ($26) for stealing from a temple. There is also a perception that India does not care enough about bringing back her treasures.
“It’s very sad that our sacred objects from temples, which are treated as ‘living gods’, have become curios to decorate western galleries and homes and gardens, because of unscrupulous dealers and toothless laws."
Kumar was always interested in history and heritage, and started a blog called Poetry in Stone in 2007 about heritage sites and Indian art. With a group of like-minded friends, he did a lot of work informally locating or looking at the trail of lost or smuggled Indian art and artefacts, but they were not taken seriously. That was when he realised the global art and antiques trade has a seedy underbelly, and he began his mission to "bring the gods home”.
From 2010 onwards, his mission to locate Indian treasures smuggled abroad and repatriate them to India has gained visibility and traction from governments and law enforcement agencies.
Now, the India Pride Project's work involves much research, documentation, dealing with law enforcement agencies and following the trails of missing art and artefacts. Because of the criminal nexus between thieves, smugglers and sellers of stolen art, and safety issues, most of the volunteers are anonymous and documentation can be accessed by only a select few.
India was one of more than 100 countries that ratified a 1970 United Nations convention that bans the trafficking of cultural heritage and requires the restitution of items that are provably stolen. Under the Antiquity and Art Treasures Act of 1972, the Archaeological Survey of India has been given the job of preventing theft and illegal export of antiquities. The movement of antiquities that are taken out of the country since 1972 counts as illegal export, unless it's by the government and its authorised agencies.
So how do these dabbling detectives locate stolen objects?
“We have extensive documentation of all the India artefacts and art accumulated by volunteers, scanning art catalogues and museum collections around the world,” Kumar says. “We also act on tip-offs by volunteers, art dealers and even bureaucrats around the world.”
Members of Facebook groups often post pictures of Indian objects from collections in museums abroad. The team also keeps track through their network of volunteers on what passes through art auctions or is sold to galleries or auction houses overseas.
Kumar looks for distinguishing marks on the artefacts such as nicks, chips or metal imperfections, and compares it with his database.
The group has worked closely with law enforcement in India and abroad, including Interpol and Homeland Security in the US.
Raids on locations in New York brought to light the art smuggler Subhash Kapoor, who had been the go-to man for art galleries that wanted artefacts from India and South East Asia. Between 2011 and 2020, more than 2,500 items dealt by Kapoor were recovered, worth $143 million. Kapoor was convicted in 2019 for running an international art smuggling racket. Kumar and his team assisted US law enforcement agencies in the investigation that led to Kapoor's arrest, and Kumar has since published a book called The Idol Thief about these audacious thefts.
“It’s not only objects from Hindu temples that we focus on. Our interest is in bringing back India’s cultural and religious treasures, irrespective of religious affiliations. We have recovered Jain, Buddhist and Islamic treasures too."
According to a 2013 Comptroller and Auditor General of India report, India managed to bring back only 19 antiquities between 1972 and 2000 and nothing between 2000 and 2012. These are the latest figures available, according to Kumar, but the India Pride Project alone has helped facilitate or initiate the return of 300 stolen treasures so far.
“A 12th-century bronze Buddha statue stolen from a museum at Nalanda in Bihar nearly 60 years ago had baffled everyone. The bronze statue was one of the 14 statues stolen in 1961 from the Archaeological Survey of India site museum in Nalanda and had surfaced in an auction in London and was returned in 2018 to India,” Kumar says. Sanjeev Sanyal, principal economic adviser to the government of India and a close friend of Kumar, brought the stolen idol to Kumar's attention and he traced it to an art auction in London.
“Another prized restitution was when Britain returned three exquisite 15th-century Vijayanagar-era bronze idols of Lord Ram, Lakshman and Sita, which were stolen from a temple in Anandamangalam, Tamil Nadu in 1978. We came across the Ram statue while going through the website of the British Association of Antique Dealers.”
The objects that are repatriated are usually returned to the place of worship from where they were stolen. Others are displayed at the Gallery of Retrieved and Confiscated Antiquities at the Purana Qila in New Delhi.
“The main reason that art and idols are stolen and traded is that it’s used in money laundering, and an easy way to transfer money to another country. There are also tax exemptions on private donations to museums abroad,” Kumar says.
“In my estimate, India has lost 10,000 valuable artefacts every decade. Thanks to our efforts, today most art galleries and museums around the world are at least wary about buying Indian art treasures, unless ownership is clear.”
Kumar believes Indian museums should now begin to share their extensive collections for specified periods to other museums, then artefacts can be safely returned once an exhibition ends.
“Civil activism is essential in redefining the conversation around contested cultural objects,” says Dr Emiline Smith, a lecturer in criminology at the University of Glasgow. “The India Pride Project is the perfect example of what civil activism can accomplish in this field: they have been extremely successful in identifying stolen and looted cultural objects in foreign private and public collections, and returning them to their rightful owners, namely communities all across India.
“The ongoing market demand for these cultural objects means these cultural objects are still under continuous threat from being looted and stolen, so we need to regulate market demand more effectively, while supporting local crime prevention measures.”