US returns three ancient stolen sculptures worth $1.5 million to India

US returns three ancient stolen sculptures worth $1.5 million to India

nterpol's Washington director Shawn Bray (L), India's Consul General Dnyaneshwar Muluy (C) and Homeland Security Executive James Dinkins during a repatriation ceremony on January 14, 2014 at the Consulate General of India in New York

New York:  The US handed over to India three stolen antique sculptures, valued at over 1.5 million dollars, in a display of cooperation between the two countries following a month-long row over the arrest and indictment of an Indian diplomat in New York.

]US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations returned the three sculptures to Indian Consul General Dnyaneshwar Mulay during a "repatriation ceremony" at the Indian Consulate.

The US federal agents had seized the antiquities as they were being illegally traded within America.

The exchange comes just days after diplomat Devyani Khobragade was asked to leave the US after she was accorded diplomatic immunity by the State Department and indicted on charges of visa fraud and making false statements regarding the employment terms of her domestic worker Sangeeta Richard.

Incidentally, the repatriation ceremony will take place at the Indian Consulate, which had been Ms Khobragade's office before she was transferred to the Indian mission at the UN.

"Prevention of illegal trade in antiquities has emerged as an important area of cooperation between India and the United States as can be seen from this recent recovery of stolen Indian antiquities," said Mr Mulay.

"I deeply appreciate the excellent work done by ICE HSI in getting these three priceless Indian assets recovered. The successful investigations and repatriation of these cultural artifacts underscores the importance of growing institutional partnership, which is of great significance to both countries."

One of the objects - a 350-pound sandstone sculpture stolen from an Indian temple in 2009 - was listed as one of Interpol's top 10 most wanted stolen works of art.

Two of the three artifacts returned to India were reported in 2009 by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), who notified the Indian Consulate about two sandstone sculptures stolen from the Gadgach Temple in Atru, Rajasthan.

The 350-pound 'Vishnu and Lakshmi' sandstone sculpture dates back to the 11th or 12th century and was listed as number 6 on Interpol's top 10 most wanted works of art.

Also stolen from the temple and repatriated during the ceremony was the 600-pound 'Vishnu and Parvati' sandstone sculpture, dating to the same period.

The third artifact is a male deity black sandstone sculpture, depicting a Bodhisattva, a popular subject in
Buddhist art, and is believed to date back to the 11th or early 12th century from either Bihar or Bengal.

HSI Executive Associate Director James A Dinkins presented the artifacts to Mr Mulay, alongside Interpol Washington director Shawn Bray.

"The excellent international cooperation between the United States and India led to the recovery and return of these priceless antiquities."

"The pilfering of a nation's cultural patrimony cannot and will not be tolerated," said Dinkins.

"There is no better example of what can be accomplished through the collaboration between US and international law enforcement via Interpol than the astounding results of this investigation, which has led to today's repatriation of these artifacts to their rightful place with the people of India," said Bray.

"Interpol Washington is proud to have been able to assist ICE Homeland Security Investigations in obtaining the documentation and images necessary to help identify the objects as those stolen from India."
The investigation that led to this repatriation began on April 13, 2010, when HSI New York special agents received information that the Indian sandstone sculptures recently looted from India were being offered for sale in the US.

HSI special agents discovered that the 'Vishnu and Lakshmi' sculpture was transported from India to Hong Kong.

From there, it was sold to a dealer in Thailand, and then resold to a buyer in London. The London buyer shipped the sculpture to New York City for an exhibition in March 2010.

On April 15, 2010, HSI special agents recovered the piece while it was being shipped back to London.

On July 12, 2010, as a direct result of the 'Vishnu and Lakshmi' seizure, a sister piece, the 'Vishnu and Parvati', was seized.

It was transported to Hong Kong, sold to a buyer in New York and then sold and shipped to a buyer in Basel, Switzerland.

On July 7, 2011, the Indian black stone Bodhisattva figure was discovered being smuggled into America at Newark Airport by US Customs and Border Protection officers.

HSI special agents seized it after discovering that its accompanying paperwork declared Great Britain as a false country of origin.

In addition, the item was grossly undervalued.

The last ICE cultural property repatriation to India was in 2006 when ICE agents in NY returned a ninth century stone idol that had been stolen from a temple in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh in 2000.
Story First Published: January 15, 2014 08:10 IST

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