1000 ancient idols smuggled out of India every year

Industry scale loot means auction houses are sending their top executives to pick and choose art pieces while some are sharing the pictures on social media.
Image for representational purpose only.
Image for representational purpose only.

SINGAPORE: An estimated 1,000 pieces of ancient artworks are stolen from Indian temples every year and shipped to the international market, according to Singapore-based Indian-origin shipping executive.

"We are estimating about close to 10,000 major work of arts leaving India every decade," said S Vijay Kumar, who has been tracking the theft of venerable gods and goddess for 15 years.

Some of these are as heavy as 15-16 tonnes.

Kumar has detailed the artwork theft in a book "The Idol Thief", which was launched in Singapore on Saturday.

"We have tracked some of the huge objects, 15-16 tonnes sculptures, that have left the country by Ocean containers, declared as brassware and garden furniture," Kumar told PTI.

"Sadly, for a longtime, it has not been cared for," he said, pointing out that not many people realise the extent of the loot which is a targeted loot on an industry scale. Some stolen pieces are replicated without people realising it.

Industry scale loot means auction houses are sending their top executives to pick and choose art pieces while some are sharing the pictures on social media what can be sourced out of the Indian heritage, he explained.

On selecting a specific artwork, the illegal process of acquiring it starts.

Kumar has legally checked and compiled his adventure of tracking looted Indian idols and artworks in the 225-page book of true events.

To escape tracking, routes for container shipment of huge sculptures are changed from Chennai, Mumbai, Kolkata and Hong Kong on to New York and London as well as other international destinations.

Smaller pieces are being couriered, he said.

The US is the biggest market for these stolen pieces, followed by the UK and now it is moving to Australia, according to Kumar.

Tracking these stolen pieces is difficult in the borderless European Union where some countries like Germany are putting in tougher laws on protecting antiquity works.

Kumar has a 11-member team of volunteers and supported by some 200 spread across the globe, all working for free.

The chartered accountant from Tamil Nadu opens the book with a story on Subhash Kapoor, who is in Chennai jail for theft of idols from Indian Temples.

American authorities have recovered stolen Indian art worth USD 100 million from arrested Kapoor's warehouses and galleries and named him "one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world".

Kumar said India needs a powerful law to protect its artwork.

Almost all stolen Indian artworks in the international market are without documents.

There is no archive on most of the Indian artwork, regrets Kumar who has played a role in the arrest of many idol thieves and smugglers.

Among the prized stolen artwork are pieces from the Chola dynasty which witnessed the building of many elaborately carved stone temples all over Tamil Nadu from 850 CE to 1250 CE.

Giving a comparison, he said Italy was the front runner in protecting its artwork with tough laws which has helped recover 378,000 pieces 2012 while India has rescued 27 pieces since 2012.

Worldwide thinking is changing with onus being put on a buyer to proof that the genuine artwork is acquired legally.

Egypt, for one, is recovering stolen artwork by just pointing out the Egyptian origin, putting pressure on a buyer to proof it is a legal acquisition, according to Kumar who has a blog on Indian art called poetryinstone.in.

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The New Indian Express