UPDATED: At Looted Temple In India, Locals Unwittingly Worship a Fake



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.

Ardhanarishvara receiptWhen 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.


6 responses to “UPDATED: At Looted Temple In India, Locals Unwittingly Worship a Fake

  1. Reblogged this on serendipity and commented:
    Prestigious museums are guilty of displaying stolen antiquities as they buy from dubious dealers. Priceless treasures are shipped out and sold to private collectors and museums around the world. take a look at CHASING APHRODITE for more on the illegal trade in antiques

  2. I’m not sure I understand the point of your headline. Presumably, the worshipers view the statue as a manifestation of God. Whether that statue was made 900 years ago or last week is likely of little relevance to them on that basis.

  3. And after all, in Mr Tompa’s “educated opinion”, these idol-worshipping brown skinned folk should be satisfied with second-best, eh? According to the Washington lobbyist, they should simply accept with resignation that their sacred statue, the manifestation of the divine, has been removed to a distant secular and profane venue (to which few of them will ever have access) to be gawped at by non-believers?

  4. I just noted these believers presumably care about less worldly matters. Sounds like you are pressing your own secular archaeology over all religion on the rest of us once again. No thanks.

  5. Why do you assume “these believers” care about anything other than what the rest of us care about? Just because they do not live in Washington does it make them inferior in some way to you? Less “worldly”? Less worthy of any consideration? It seems to me that such attitudes towards an “Other” underlie the whole issue with antiquity collecting, attitudes of disregard, contempt and entitlement.

    It is not “archaeology” anyone here is advocating, but common decency, something that seems to be lacking in many dealings of dealers and collectors of the so-called “developed” world with the cultural property (including, as here, religious artefacts) of others.

  6. The Art Gallery of New South Wales paid $300,000 for the statue because they thought they were getting a real, and probably stolen, idol from a Hindu temple in India; the Art Gallery would never have paid $300,000 for a copy of an Indian temple statue. The Art Gallery consciously purchased a stolen heritage artifact when it bought the Indian temple statue. The most shocking, and disturbing, aspect of this story is that the Art Gallery has not been slapped with a huge fine (at least $3 million would be fair), as compensation to the Government of India, and the administrators of the Art Gallery were not put in jail along with Subash Chandra Kapoor, who did not defraud the Art Gallery, but sold them precisely the stolen goods that they wanted.

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