Returning stolen artefacts, a gratifying gesture

Returning stolen artefacts, a gratifying gesture

The returning of the Sripuranathan bronze Ganesha idol along with nearly 200 other stolen Indian artefacts worth millions of dollars including the idol of Saint Manikkavachagar, a Hindu mystic and poet of the Chola period, stolen from a Shiva temple in Tamil Nadu – now valued at $1.5 million – is highly a gratifying gesture. The artefacts were returned to Prime Minister Narendra Modi  during his recent visit to Washington.

With this, the US formally began the process of repatriating India’s stolen treasures in the custody of private art collectors and in the possession of museums and art galleries  spread across in America.

These treasures as well as the other numerous artefacts were all clandestinely sold by art dealers like Subhash Kapoor who ran a high profile gallery in New York, Art of the Past, and had the dubious distinction of having sold smuggled Indian artefacts not only to private art collectors but even to acclaimed institutions and museums. He is presently in jail and is undergoing trial in Tamil Nadu for numerous idol thefts. It is reported that sleuths have since seized artefacts in his possession worth more than $100 million.

The most sensational case of stolen art in the past was that of Sivapuram Nataraja idol of Tamil Nadu. Nearly 40 years after it was stolen, and after several court wrangles involving many countries, it was returned. This exquisite Nataraja idol belonging to the Chola period along with few more idols was found in Sivapuram near Kumbakonam by a farmer while digging his farm way back in 1951.

The district collector who took control of it, donated it to be installed in the local Sivagurunathar temple. The temple authorities gave the idol to a Sthapathi for repairs before installation. The idol was duly returned to the temple after carrying out the repairs.

In 1961, Duglas Barret of the British Museum after a visit to the temple, wrote that the installed Nataraja idol in the temple was fake and that the original idol was in the possession of a private art collector in the US. This sensational claim made the Tamil Nadu government to send top police officers to America to investigate. It was revealed that some locals persuaded the Sthapathi to part with the original Nataraja idol in return for the fake one to be returned to the temple.

The idol eventually made its way to the US and was bought by Norton Simon foundation for a whopping $900,000. After a protracted legal battle, the Sivapuram Nataraja idol was returned in 1987 and is now kept in a safe vault in Kapaleeswara Temple in Mylapore in Chennai.

Similarly, the 900-year old Nataraja idol stolen from the Brihadeeshwara temple at Sripuranathan was smuggled to the US and sold to the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra for a staggering $1.5 million. The idol was subsequently returned by the Australian government in 2014 on ethical grounds. Several other statues stolen from Sripuranathan were also traced to the US and a few to Singapore.

Subhash Kapoor’s arrest alarmed museums all over the world as they started investigating their purchases from his New York Gallery. The Linden Museum in Germany returned voluntarily to the Indian government a 9th century idol of Mahishasuramardhini stolen from Jammu in 1990, which was acquired from Kapoor.

The Taledo Museum of Art in Ohio returned four artefacts acquired from the same smuggler. In November 2015, the US returned a Chola period bronze statue of Shiva and Parvathi sold to the David Owsley Museum at Ball State University in 2005 by the same smuggler.  

Srirangapatnam artefacts

While the stolen objects are being repatriated as a part of the bilateral and diplomatic processes, there has been another genre of Indian items in the UK and other European countries which were looted after wars and invasions during the long colonial regime. The various priceless artefacts from Srirangapatnam found their way to England and Scotland after the defeat and death of Tipu in 1799.

The National Museum of Scotland and the Scottish War Museum in Edinburgh, and the Victoria & Albert museum in London have the Mysore collections in large numbers. In Europe, during the Napoleonic wars, looting art treasures from the vanquished countries had become rampant.

In fact, Napoleon institutionalised the process of looting art objects  after winning the wars. Though the Congress of Vienna, after the battle of Waterloo in 1815, restored most of such treasures to the respective countries, the Louvre museum in Paris still has a number of masterpieces which Napoleon had carted from Italy.

The world famous Amaravathi sculptures excavated from near Guntur in Andhra in 1845 by Sir Walter Elliot and later transported to England, now find place in the British museum, London. The Kohinoor diamond taken away by the British  after the Second Sikh war and presented to Queen Victoria in 1850 is exhibited in the Tower of London as a part of the British crown Jewels. 

However, the best example of looted art that is denied to be retuned, is “Elgin Marbles,” exhibited in the British museum, London. This awesome collection of sculptures removed from the ruins of ancient Greek capital Athens in 1805 by Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to Ottoman Sultan at Istanbul, was shipped away to England which later was acquired by the British museum. 

Art treasures and sculptures that were made to sail away from the place of their origin due to political exigencies, eloquently tell the story of human achievement and affirm their cultural legacy. These objects can never be assessed in terms of money. However, they remain as symbols of the national pride and identity. International organisations like the Unesco would do well to take up the issue of restoration of such looted, priceless objects to the rightful countries.

(The writer is retired professor of History, University of Hyderabad)
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