India receives 105 antiques smuggled to US in follow-up to PM Modi’s visit

Arul Louis (IANS)–

India has received a batch of 105 stolen antiques recovered by US officials in a follow-up to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Washington visit, according to India’s Ambassador to the US Taranjit Singh Sandhu.

“For us, these are not just art but part of our heritage, culture and religion. So when this lost heritage returns home, it is received with a lot of emotion,” Sandhu said at a ceremony in India’s Consulate General in New York on Monday to repatriate the antiques.

Ambassador Sandhu later tweeted: “Indian antiquities to return home! Delighted to attend a ceremony in #NewYork this morning, marking the restitution of Indian artefacts following PM @narendramodi’s State Visit. Appreciate the cooperation extended by the US in protection & exchange of cultural property.”

In a preview, Prime Minister Modi had said at a meeting with the diaspora in Washington in June: “I am happy that the American government has decided to return more than 100 antiquities of India that were stolen from us. These antiquities had reached the international markets. I express my gratitude to the American government for this.”

Prime Minister Modi, who has made it his mission to regain for India antiques and art stolen from the country, said: “Over centuries, innumerable priceless artefacts, some with deep cultural and religious significance, had been stolen and smuggled abroad.”

About 50 of the antiques returned on Monday have religious significance for Hindus, Jains and Muslims, while the rest are of cultural value.

Some of them were plundered from temples where they were objects of adoration.

Jordan Stockdale from the Manhattan prosecutor’s office said that many of the antiques were allegedly smuggled by Subash Kapoor and his gang of multinational operators.

He said: “We are excited to return those priceless treasures to you.”

“We are deeply appreciative of Prime Minister Modi’s kind words,” Stockdale said, adding that “they reflect the close collaboration, which has led to successful recovery for thousands of Indian antiquities”.

This was the latest development in the saga of convicted antiques smuggler Subash Kapoor who ran an international trafficking syndicate from his Art of the Past gallery on Madison Avenue in New York.

The Manhattan prosecutor’s office returned to India a batch of 248 antiques valued at $15 million in 2021, and another of 307 items valued at about $4 million last October.

Kapoor was sentenced last November by a court in Kumbakonam, Tamil Nadu, to a 10-year prison sentence for stealing statues from temples.

He was extradited to India from Germany and is awaiting extradition to the US where he has been charged in New York with smuggling stolen artefacts.

Stockdale said that in all more than 2,500 artefacts valued at more than $145 million have been seized and he expected more of them to be returned to India.

Stockdale is the chief of staff to Manhattan prosecutor Alvin Bragg, whose office plays a pivotal role in Operation Hidden Idol that pursued Kapoor and the stolen antiques with Colonel Mathew Bagadanos heading the Antiquities Trafficking Unit.

The operation targeting Kapoor began around 2011 after a tipoff from Indian officials and discovered a web of crime spanning India, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

Kapoor’s business ensnared several museums and collectors.

Several museums have returned stolen artefacts to India.

Starting in 2014, museums in Honolulu, Hawaii; Salem, Massachusetts; Toledo in Ohio; Birmingham, Alabama, and Gainesville, Florida, began returning art and antiques identified as stolen from India.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced in March that it would send back 15 antiques from its collection that were connected to the Kapoor operation.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena have admitted to having art acquired from Kapoor in their collection.

The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the David Owsley Museum of Art in Muncie, Indiana, were among the institutions that had antiques from Kapoor.

Australia returned an Ardhanarishvara statue acquired from Kapoor to India in 2015 and its National Art Gallery said in 2021 that it would repatriate 14 other artefacts.

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