Tag Archives: A. SRIVATHSAN

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

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UPDATED BELOW

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.

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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.

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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.

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Lost and Found: Images Show Art Gallery NSW’s Sculpture Was Stolen From An Indian Temple

A 900-year-old Indian statue at Sydney’s Art Gallery of New South Wales was stolen from an Indian temple sometime after 1974, newly identified images show.

Ardhanarishvara

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Last week, the Art Gallery NSW released provenance records for the Chola-era sculpture of Ardhanarishvara which it purchased in 2004 for more than $300,000. The documents were supplied by Subhash Kapoor, the prominent Manhattan antiquities dealer who sold the sculpture to the museum. (Previous Kapoor coverage here.) The records claim a New York antiquities collector had purchased the sculpture in 1970 from a handicraft dealer in Dehli and held it ever since.

Today we can say that ownership history, like others supplied by Kapoor, was fabricated. Images identified by Poetry in Stone, a blog that celebrates South Asian temple sculpture, show the statue was in situ at the Vriddhachalam temple in Tamil Nadu, India for at least four years after 1970 and was subsequently stolen.

The image above left shows the sculpture in Sydney as it looks today. The image above right was published in Douglas Barrett’s 1974 book Early Chola Architecture and Sculpture 866 – 1014 and shows the sculpture in its original context at the Vriddhachalam temple.

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How the identification was made

The discovery of the sculpture’s origin is a result of rapid international collaboration. After requests from Jason and The Australian’s Michaela Boland, the Art Gallery NSA released the Kapoor provenance documents on June 25. On June 28th, A. Srivathsan at The Hindu wrote a story about the recent Kapoor revelations with a link to ChasingAphrodite.com

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One of the people who read the story was Vijay Kumar, the creator of Poetry in Stone. Kumar came to this site, saw our post on the Ardhanarishvara and recognized it immediately.

Four years earlier, Kumar had published an iconographic study of Ardhanarishvara, the androgynous manifestation of the Hindu god Shiva and his lover Parvati. One of the temple sculptures he singled out as the “perfect form” of the god was in the Vriddhachalam temple:

You can see the female portion in full triple flexion ( tribanga) and to compensate for it, the right leg of Shiva is bent fully. This causes the male torso to lean at the awkward angle and though the sculpture would look pleasing it would not be aesthetically appealing. So he comes up with an ingenious solution. Make Shiva rest or lean on to something and the readily available option is his mount or vehicle – Nandhi. Presto, problem solved. Add lots of beautiful ornamentation, develop the differences in the dressing style and this perfected model becomes a standard for all Ardhanari images henceforth.

When Kumar recognized the Sydney sculpture as the very same “perfect model,” he dug through his files and found the 1974 plate in the Barrett book and other records of the statue, which was well documented in its original context. Here is an image of the statue in situ with a Tamil inscription above the niche from the archives of the American Academy of Benares, Varanasi:

0 RIn an email to me today, Kumar wrote:

“This particular form was my personal favorite as its beauty appealed to me in a queer form: despite two of the main limbs, the hands mutilated, the sculpture still retained its sinuous grace. If you were to look at an ordinary piece of art with such a deformity your eye would instantly go to the broken parts. However, in this piece unless someone specifically points it out to you, at first glance you tend to miss the broken hands! Apart from that, the brilliant ornamentation and their swaying etc. are wonderfully sculpted. The ear of the bull comes a bit out of the composition as well. Overall the contours of the kosta block itself are unique as well and offer the vital clue.”

Coincidently, Kumar is a native of Chennai, the Tamil Nadu capital where Kapoor is currently facing trial. He currently lives in Singapore but has reached out to contacts in Tamil Nadu to determine when and how the sculpture was stolen from the Vriddhachalam temple. We’ll keep you posted on what he finds out.

Michael Brand

Michael Brand

Meanwhile, the revelations raise several questions. When will other museums release provenance information provided by Kapoor? If the Art Gallery NSW sculpture had been so widely published, why did the museum not identify it as stolen before the 2004 acquisition? And how will the museum’s director Michael Brand respond to compelling new evidence that objects acquired before his arrival in Sydney were apparently stolen and smuggled out of India.

Brand, whose specialty is South Asia art, faced similar questions at the Getty Museum and did the right thing.

Will he now?