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This hero stops the plunder of India's past

Last updated on: October 14, 2015 15:00 IST

'Imagine how secure are our seaports and airports that 10,000 objects can leave every decade and our custodians are not even aware?'

'This kind of targeted looting when thieves pick and choose the best of Indian art and steal on an industrial basis will eventually impoverish our great land.'

Vijay Kumar

"Vijay is a lone voice, screaming into the darkness, saying: 'Hey Prime Minister Modi, why don't you make the Tamil Nadu Idol Wing into a national police force to monitor and protect our cultural heritage across the country?'" says US-based antiquities blogger Jason Felch about his fellow blogger Vijay Kumar.

Vijay Kumar, who works in the shipping industry in Singapore by day, works usually late into the night, connecting with other bloggers, art enthusiasts and reporters, across the world, devoting valuable time to raising awareness about national treasures that are being smuggled out of India, and other countries, by unscrupulous art thieves.

Sadly, the money in the antiquities trade is all on the side of the ruthless raiders. There is hardly any money to support the handful of dedicated crusaders like Vijay Kumar who bravely try to draw adequate attention to the rampant robbery.

In this concluding part of his interview to Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/Rediff.com, Vijay Kumar outlines how he resourcefully traces antiquities stolen from Indian temples and archaeological sites:

EARLIER IN THE SERIES

What exactly did you do?

My role is purely restitution of stolen art, thereby making sure India is not taken as easy pickings and (to have) high profile returns (that) act as a strong deterrent (that will stop) museums and collectors from indulging in optical due diligence and throwing millions (away) on our stolen art. (The story is) akin to ivory. When the buying stops, the killing stops.

It's for law enforcement -- be it Indian or of other nations -- to handle the investigations. Sadly, there is no will to dismantle the smuggling network. Quite often, only the petty thieves are arrested and given token sentences, while the kingpin gets away scot free (only) to find another dealer to peddle his wares.

In the past, the biggest problem with restitution of Indian antiquities (for the Indian government) has been to narrow down the original theft site and also prove that it was removed illegally after 1972 (The 1970 Unesco Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, that prevents illicit trafficking of cultural property, which India signed onto in 1972).

For instance, in the case of the (that represents an androgynous form of Shiva and Parvati) that was at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Australia, it was my keen eye which spotted the uncanny resemblance between it to the Vriddhachlam Temple (Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu) Ardhanari stone sculpture and prove it was from there.

I could also dig out publications (Douglas Barrett's 1974 Early Chola Architecture and Sculpture) which showed that the sculpture was still in the temple much after 1972.

The Vriddhachlam Ardhanari that was smuggled to Australia

IMAGE: The Vriddhachlam Ardhanari that was smuggled to Australia. Photograph: Kind courtesy Vijay Kumar

(The fact that it had been stolen) was not even known till then, as there was a replica installed in its place. The public and the authorities were blissfully unaware of the switch. It was only after my expose that an FIR (First Information Report) was lodged and India could successfully bring the sculpture back from Sydney.

The case with the Nataraja, at the National Gallery of Australia, was a bit more complicated. There were two Natarajas stolen from two temples -- Sripuranthan and Suthamalli (in Tamil Nadu).

The Idol Wing (of the Tamil Nadu police) and the press initially believed that the Australian Nataraja was from Suthamalli. It was my work, in matching the detailed photos from the French Institute of Pondicherry archives, that clinched the evidence that it was the Sripuranthan temple's Nataraja that was in Australia.

The then curator of the Australian gallery claimed that all Natarajas look similar and his was not the stolen one. It was this YouTube campaign (external link) that provided the clear proof.

(After Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Australia in September 2014, then Australian prime minister Tony Abbott returned both these idols to India when he visited New Delhi.)

The Uma statue that Vijay Kumar helped locate

IMAGE: The Uma statue Vijay Kumar helped locate. Photograph: Kind courtesy Vijay Kumar

It was my work on the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore's Uma (external link) that is helping bring her back to India. (Somewhere between January 2005 and November 2006, an Uma Parameshvari owned by the Government of India was stolen from the Sivan Temple, Ariyalur district. Vijay Kumar was able to trace this stolen statue when it reappeared in the Singapore museum some time after February 2007. The Uma has been taken down from display at the museum, but has not yet been returned to India.)

Similar was the case of the Toledo Museum of Art's Ganesha and how for almost a year the Indian embassy/consulate in America refused to act.

The list goes on...

The real reason why Subhash Kapoor was caught was because of a tiff with his ex-girlfriend (Singapore resident Paramaspry Punusamy), who turned on him and passed on crucial information to law enforcement.

The other reason was because he grew complacent after his first escape in 2009.

Why did Kapoor land up in Chennai and meet Sanjeevi Asokan? What was the lure?

Kapoor came to Chennai in 2005 to expand his business. Sanjeevi had already sent him a few shipments and they were authentic. So Kapoor met him at a posh hotel to seek more. Kapoor has been active (offering) major items since 1998, coincidentally the same year when Peter Watson exposed Vaman Ghiya and Sotheby's London. So maybe the art underworld decided to create a new front man in America for their use!

Was there any reason why he got trapped in Tamil Nadu rather than elsewhere in India? He must have made repeated trips to many parts of India.

I would say this was due to one of Tamil Nadu's top Idol Wing officers, whose name I will not mention since he is still serving. He has been one of the few officers who understands the seriousness of this problem.

The Idol Wing is considered a punishment posting in Tamil Nadu! This officer was apparently shunted there. Before him there were many cases, where only the petty guys got caught and even they were out on bail. In some cases (the perpetrators) were still out from even the 1990s!

This officer has remained steadfast so far, holding Kapoor behind bars. There is more that could have been done -- but his main idea was to secure Kapoor behind bars and build a foolproof case and is thus restricting the prosecution to just the three cases.

There was another good officer at the Idol Wing -- S Selvaraj. He supported our efforts well. But he retired. In fact, he was the one who led the raid to the hotel in Kochi where Sanjeevi Asokan was arrested. He faced a lot of pressure for that.

There were cases lodged against Selvaraj, accusing him of stealing money during one of his searches of a home of a relative of Sanjeevi Asokan. There is also a claim by Subhash Kapoor that he was asked to pay money by the Tamil Nadu police etc.

Are there many people like Asokan operating out there, selling Indian antiques?

Yes. There are at least 50 odd gangs operating in India and (each has) a big fish handler. Tamil Nadu and Kerala alone have more than 10 gangs.

(Jaipur-based) Vaman Ghiya is said to have confessed to selling over 20,000 artefacts (through) Sotheby's. Sotheby's London closed its office because of the scandal in 1998. They sacked the two India heads, who were named after the BBC sting operation.

Peter Watson named them in his book, Sotheby's, The Inside Story. He has also told us that a senior ASI (Archaeological Survey of India) officer came and met him in Europe and took personal notes and all the evidence.

Yet no case was filed against Sotheby's or the two employees. They (the employees) promptly opened their own antique business in London and are still operating.

Not even one of the 20,000 objects was recovered. Vaman was convicted in 2002. But the Rajasthan high court acquitted him in early 2014, citing amongst other things the fact that not even one object of the 20,000 were restituted. The ASI has not appealed the verdict in the Supreme Court so far. Sotheby's opened their office in Mumbai last month!

The Kapoor case is hauntingly similar in scale and scope. If not for our vigilante activism too, he would have escaped the law and not a single object would have returned.

We have clear cases where we have given proof of objects stolen from ASI site museums -- in Kari Talai (in Katni, Madhya Pradesh) -- which have been seized in Art of Past warehouses and continue to be sold in Europe by other rogue dealers. Yet no action has been taken.

Some of the objects are huge -- the Nagapattinam Buddha is a colossal piece. It was lifted from a temple. Yet, when we wrote to the ASI regional office they reverted saying no theft has been reported and Nagapattinam is not an ASI site. We have robbers' photos -- robbers take photos to send to prospective buyers, these are usually when the sculptures are still in situ at temples -- to prove it...

The saddest part is the Buddha was on loan by Kapoor to be part of an exhibition titled Nalanda Way in Singapore, which was opened by then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh!

Imagine how secure are our seaports and airports that 10,000 objects can leave every decade and our custodians are not even aware?

Is the sculpture of Tamil Nadu and the South more vulnerable to art thieves than elsewhere in India?

Not really.

But Tamil Nadu has more extensive documentation because of the stellar work of (early 20th century) scholars like Ananda Coomaraswamy (the Sri Lankan Tamil philosopher) and (Calambur) Sivaramamurti (Indian art historian and museologist). So a lot more documentation exists to match (check out against possible) thefts. But it's not comprehensive. Nor is it catalogued. The French Institute of Pondicherry archives help us a lot in matching many (cases).

The looting is on a more large scale in north India, especially in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh. But due to lack of scholarly attention, they are difficult to track.

What do you know about the scene in Tamil Nadu? Why are these pieces of art so easily stolen?

The problem in Tamil Nadu has to do with the value. When a museum pays Rs 35 crores (Rs 350 million) for a Chola bronze, there is no way we can protect the gods of 45,000 odd temples in the state!

Further, there are many (pieces) which were buried to escape the Muslim invasion in 1314 (the raid by Malik Kafur, a general of Alauddin Khilji). We still unearth many (of these pieces) every year. Sadly, not all are reported and these get smuggled out.

How did you get interested in sculpture and its theft? Why do these antiquities/sculpture talk to you? I notice your e-mail address incorporates the word episteme (intellectually certain knowledge or to know) and your e-mail signature has a quote from Rabindranath Tagore: 'Here the language of stone surpasses the language of man.'

I got interested when I was young after reading a Tamil work of historical fiction: Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki. I got interested in history after reading that book, but felt that many go to temples -- to make their demands, do their penance, (give) their donations and head out -- do not spend time to even explore the beautiful sculpture because of lack of awareness.

I started the blog, Poetry in Stone, more as a means to demystify temple art and promote its appreciation. For me these are our ancestral treasures. It's our sacred duty to take care of them and pass them on to the next generation.

This kind of targeted looting when thieves pick and choose the best of Indian art and steal on an industrial basis will eventually impoverish our great land.

Where do you get your infotrmation for your blog? Do people voluntarily supply it to you? How do you go about researching a piece to see if it is has been stolen recently? How do you map thefts?

We use social media extensively. I do not have to spend money to build my archive -- the gratification of members urges others to send their photos and thereby I have built an extensive archive of Indian art, both of sites in India and also in museums abroad free of cost.

We also do dedicated trips to extensively document key sites. We have built a large knowledge database by collecting published works and scanning them, (so data is available) for quick recovery.

I spend close to two hours daily, as a hobby, identifying suspicious pieces and then work on our archive to (find a) match.

How often do you come back to Tamil Nadu and do you have special ties with government archaeologists and law enforcement people in Tamil Nadu? What are some of the interesting things they tell you?

I do two trips a year. The experience with government and the Archaeological Survey of India has been pathetic to say the least. They have no interest in helping or (giving) support.

For one -- they never respond to my leads and e-mails. They credit my finds to themselves and their friendly archaeologists.

What little we have still managed (to do) is thanks mainly due to support from friends in the media.

What are the main issues, in your view, in India, that allows the country to lose its art? In what way are different departments of the government remiss? What are the most important measures required to make a change?

  • Lack of a national archive.
  • No one (is willing) to enforce the provisions of the Antiquity and Art Treasures Act, 1972, and now they want to further dilute it, thanks to the all-powerful collecting lobby.
  • We have no national art squad.
  • Corruption.
  • Legacy, where in the past, we have let smugglers, dealers, auction houses, art restorers off the hook. So no one took India seriously.

How different are the colonial patterns of loot, during the British Raj (or under the Portuguese or French or Dutch) from the way antiquities are stolen today from India?

Colonial was loot as well, but it was more like the locals trying not to make the white man unhappy.

The first documented (episode of loot) is from a buried hoard in the Danish colony in Tranquebar (on India's eastern coast, south of Chennai). Fourteen bronzes were found in 1799 when a mosque was being repaired next to the Masilamani Nathar temple. Peter Anker, the then Danish (governor), liked them and the natives simply handed over the entire hoard, along with 10 ritual puja bronze objects found. They now rest in the Danish National Museum in Denmark.

(What is going on) now it is targeted looting. The auction houses send their experts on recce trips to India. They pick and choose what will sell and the robbers hack them (out).

What do you know about Subhash Kapoor? What kind of actual knowledge did he have of art and sculpture?

Art dealers have extensive resources and friends. Kapoor had good friends including a couple of Padma Shris! They wrote his catalogues and authenticated his sales.

Many expert Indian, American and Indian-American scholars help these kind of dealers in authenticating their objects, writing catalogues etc.

You can see examples of that in Subhash Kapoor's sales catalogue which credits them. Sadly, none of them came forward to help us even after his cover was blown. This case will be a lesson to them to be more diligent and selective.

Are there antiquities thieves who are knowledgeable and one can have a sense of awe at their knowledge, even if they are on the wrong side of the law, like one might say have for a master forger?

Frankly, I have no love lost for these kinds of rogues, who destroy entire finds, for a few saleable objects, thereby destroying context and reducing invaluable chunks of our history to mere show case objects.

What do think about the progress on the Kapoor case so far?

I am happy he is still behind bars. Knowing (our) slack laws, I am not sure if he will get a big sentence. He has tonnes of money stashed away. His ground stock seized, so far, from hideouts in Manhattan runs to 2,622 objects at $110 million. (And that does not take into account) that he was active for 30 years selling to the high and mighty.

Is the First World's attitude to stealing the antiquities of other cultures changing?

Art is becoming an investment now. This is more dangerous than already venomous private collectors and museums. High-net worth individuals are now placing anonymous bids (on antiquities) and then (having them) shipped to art storage lockers in free trade zones in Singapore, Switzerland, Dubai etc. They hold and sell. In anonymity.

Earlier, auction houses would print catalogues and hold open sales. But for the past few years, we hear that it is by invitation only and they are private events.

Art theft is also funding terror groups. ISIS profits greatly from sale of artefacts looted from Iraq, Syria etc. But even before that, Gandhara (the Swat Valley, Pakistan, and Jalalabad, Afghanistan, were the site of this old kingdom of Peshawar ruled by Kushan kings) antiquities flooded the market from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The groups involved in this profit from this activity. It's easy to know where such money goes in such countries.

The other problem is tax fraud. Big collectors collude with museum curators to gift objects. Since technically it's free, the curator doesn't need to bother much about the provenance. Plus he can value it as he wants.

For example, an object bought 10 years ago for say $8,000 can be valued at $2 million. The museum gets it free.

In countries like America and Australia the donor gets tax benefit, which he can roll for many years. Plus he gets (various) honours -- a plaque on the museum wall, a honorary citation, invitation to balls and dinners, photo ops etc.

What is the next case that needs special media highlighting?

I think the ASI failed miserably when it did not appeal the Vaman acquittal by the Rajasthan high court in the Supreme Court.

There are many rogue dealers in Europe and America who are on the line. Since it is under investigation one cannot reveal more. But the rot is really bad.

Vaihayasi Pande Daniel / Rediff.com