India demands return of stolen antique idols from US museum

Tamil Nadu has huge repository of stone and metal idols targeted by smugglers for decades

US authorities returned about 250 antiquities to India last year as part of a long-running investigation of a stolen art scheme. AP
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Indian police have demanded a US museum return two ancient metal idols that were stolen half a century ago from temples in southern Tamil Nadu state and smuggled out of the country.

The "idol wing", a special wing of Tamil Nadu police, has sent an official request to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to return the artefacts after investigations found they were among its collection.

The wing, established nearly three decades ago, has the mandate to retrieve stolen and smuggled antiquities, mostly temple idols from the state, that often end up in upmarket museums, galleries and with local art collectors in the West.

Over the last decade, the wing has reportedly recovered nearly 1,500 artefacts including 878 stolen idols. About 150 had been recovered as of July.

The southern state has a huge repository of stone and metal idols that for decades have been targeted by smugglers. India prohibits the export of antiquities.

The officers said the latest idols were from Arulmigu Vishwanatha Swamy Temple, Alathur and Mannargudi taluk in Tiruvarur district, and were replaced with fake idols at the temple decades ago.

The investigators wrote to the LA-based museum after the three metal idols were found at the museum, they said.

It said the task was challenging as there were no “official images” of the idols with the temple authorities and investigators had to rely on photographs from the French Institute of Pondicherry.

Special teams were formed and an extensive online search was conducted to locate the idols in museums and art galleries around the world, including at leading auction houses such as Christie’s.

A thorough study by experts confirmed the images taken from the website of the US-based entities were similar to the original idols.

A 500-year-old bronze idol of Lord Hanuman, the monkey god, stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu. Photo: India Pride Project

“Based on the findings of the investigation, the idol wing has prepared and submitted papers claiming the Tamil Nadu governments' ownership of the idols for onward transmission to the United States of America for repatriation of the same to Tamil Nadu,” the idol wing said.

The department hopes to retrieve the idols and put them back in the temples under the Unesco treaty soon.

The special wing in August recovered an antique idol of goddess Parvati from the 9th-century Chola-era from an auction house in New York.

The idol, stolen from a temple in 1971, was estimated to be worth 16 million rupees ($195,000).

Updated: October 26, 2022, 10:41 AM
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