Earlier this month we revealed that a 900-year-old Indian sculpture at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales (above) was stolen from an Indian temple and sold to the museum in 2004 by Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor.
We now have current pictures of the Vriddachalam temple in Tamil Nadu, where a modern replica (below) is today worshipped in place of the stolen piece.
Both the ancient and the modern sculptures represent Ardhanarisvara, a manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva and his lover Parvati. According to Vijay Kumar, an authority on Tamil Nadu temple sculptures, the current sculpture was installed in 2002 during a temple ritual. A local elder told Kumar that the original was stolen sometime in the 1980s. The replacement statue appears to be modern, Kumar notes, because of the position of the right hand: “Iconography stipulates that the hand lay flat on the head of the bull…But the sculptor who did this was most certainly a novice who [while] good in sculpting does not know the agamas (liturgical texts) well!”
In a recent report in The Hindu, journalist A. Srivathsan noted that temple authorities were not aware the original sculpture had been stolen. Srivathsan went on to describe the significance of the discovery:
With this revelation, that came during ongoing investigations involving Subhash Chandra Kapoor, a United States-based antiquities dealer arrested and jailed for his alleged involvement in an idol theft case, it has become apparent that the looting of Indian temple treasures is far more rampant than what was hitherto assumed or known. And, it would seem that even big and well-known temples have not been spared.
When The Hindu informed local authorities about the theft, the case was immediately referred to the Idol Wing of the Tamil Nadu police for investigation. Kapoor is facing trial in the coming months in the Tamil Nadu capital of Chennai in a case built by the Idol Wing with the help of American investigators, who have seized more than $100 million in allegedly looted art from Kapoor. (Find our previous Kapoor coverage here.)
The Hindu also dug into a 1970 receipt (above) provided to the museum by Kapoor, who has been known to forge false ownership histories in other cases.
When The Hindu traced out the shop, which still exists in Old Delhi, and spoke to one of the sons of Uttam Singh over the phone, he said he was not aware of such a sale. He also clarified that his deceased father Uttam Singh signed only in Urdu. The receipt produced by the Australian gallery bears no signature.
As Michaela Boland has noted in The Australian, authorities at the Art Gallery of New South Wales would have realized the statue they purchased for $300,000 had been stolen if they had simply walked seven minutes across town to the state library of New South Wales. There Douglas E. Barrett’s 1974 book Early Cola Architecture and Sculpture, 866-1014 AD has an image of the sculpture in its original context in the Vriddachalam temple.
Boland quotes Damien Huffer, archaeologist and author of the excellent blog It Surfaced Down Under, saying that the publication clearly establishes the sculpture was removed illegally from India, which has required a permit for the export of antiquities since 1972. Huffer also descries the lack of research performed by museum curators:
“For a museum or gallery to truly perform due diligence requires that they bring all of their often considerable resources to bear to assess all available published information, and not merely what the dealer suggests.”
The case shows once again that today investigators and journalists around the world are doing the research that museums should have done years ago.
UPDATE 7/29: Michaela Boland at The Australian has written a story with the latest developments, noting that Tamil Nadu authorities have been notified of the theft and are investigating. She includes this tidbit suggesting a failure of due diligence at Australian museums: “A researcher at the French Institute [ of Pondicherry, a research unit funded by the French government which maintains a database of significant antiquities in southern India] told The Australian that in 21 years he did not field an inquiry from an Australian art gallery researching Indian artefacts, despite the institute’s well-known database intended to serve exactly that purpose.” Boland also quotes Art Gallery NSW director Michael Brand saying he is “feeling a strong sense of deja vu,” a reference to his handling of similar antiquities scandals at the Getty Museum in 2007.