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The 'Indiana Jones' who is returning our past to India

Last updated on: June 10, 2016 21:44 IST

A group of concerned individuals as the India Pride Project and the support of one man dubbed America's Indiana Jones has resulted in the return of India's heritage back to the country, says Vijay Kumar.

IMAGE: Image: Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US Attorney General Loretta E Lynch at a ceremony for the return of idols stolen and smuggled from India, in Washington, DC, on June 6, 2016. Photograph: MEA Flickr. 

The historic return by America of over 200 cultural objects to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington, DC, on June 6 has seen a lot of chest-thumping in the media, but the real men who were instrumental in the return of priceless objects smuggled out of India by notorious art thief Subhash Kapoor, are likely to be forgotten.

Like what happened to when then Australian premier Tony Abott returned the Nataraja and Ardhanarishwara, Or when German Chancellor Angela Merkel returned the Kashmir Tengpura Durga or when Singapore returned the Uma.

Minister for Culture Dr Mahesh Sharma told Parliament from Independence till 2015, India brought back 24 artefacts in all (see full list here, external link). Of these, seven artefacts were brought back thanks to the efforts of the India Pride Project.

This was the situation highlighted almost as a lament by the CAG report of 2013 (external link).

But things seem to be finally falling in place with the raids on art dealers in Chennai this week.

The June 6 event in America has changed the game -- for they returned not one or two antiquities, but more than a whopping 200.

This tweet by the prime minister says it all: 'My gratitude to the US Govt for the sensitivity shown to India's heritage. This will evoke great respect among the people of India, I am grateful to President Obama for returning to us these treasures which join us to our past.'

It is the coming together of a group of concerned individuals as the India Pride Project (external link) and the support of one man who was dubbed America's Indiana Jones, after the popular character played by Harrison Ford.

So what changed?

It is the efforts of this group that has led to the return of the Chola bronze Ganesha and the Saint Manikkavaasagar.

A non-descript city block in New York City holds the office of a key player in not just India's battle against the loot of its cultural treasures, but the very epicentre of the global struggle and America's spearhead to clamp down on the growing trade in illicit antiquities.

Tucked away on the upper floors, the quaint office crammed with memorabilia, paper clippings of art heists with fancy code names (like 'Mummy's curse', 'Hidden idol' etc) overrun the available space. The overflowing dealer catalogues and books on art dwarf the struggling PC that is mute witness to the efforts of Special Agent Brenton Easter, popularly dubbed in the media and in a documentary film as 'the real-life Indiana Jones' (read more about him here and here, both external links).

Head firmly tucked away under his signature baseball cap with the letter B, this one-man army's pursuits have all the bearings of a Hollywood thriller -- complete with a flood of raids, seizures and restitutions spanning the globe -- from Italy, Cambodia and now India. His only lament: 'Get me a good counterpart in India. I just need someone willing to go the distance.'

For too long Indian red tape and ill-equipped custodians have sent him on wild goose chases -- including multiple weeks in hot and sultry India, with promises of arrests of the bad guys.

But when he had done all the hard work and armed himself with irrefutable proof of shipping documents, email exchanges, bank transfers etc, it was frustrating to see patchy attempts to first delay and then let the actual crooks get off the hook.

Brenton Easter is single-minded about dismantling the network, believes the token restitutions are only incidental and that unless the law catches up with the actual robbers, the few seizures will be written off by the global players as the cost of doing business.

The US side is saddled with a lack of legal support to not just prosecute the criminals but is also weighed down by the outdated statute of limitations in vogue in many of its state laws.

Add to this the lax policing at source countries combined with a friendly legal framework that has ensured time and again that the kingpins of the global smuggling racket go unpunished.

But the few restitutions do help to put the spotlight back on the crux of the problem. Optical due diligence by the ultimate buyers -- in this case the reputed Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio and a reputed private collector in New York City -- helped.

The red tape tying down the private efforts of Brenton and the India Pride Project came to the forefront in the case of the Toledo Ganesha -- after the investigative work by Vijay coupled with Jason Felch helped to uncover the loot in the first place.

Indian-born techie Ravi Venugopal managed to get high-resolution photographs of the artefact which were then matched to the source photographs from the French Institute in Pondicherry.

Though the museum initially put up a stone wall, in private they wrote to the Indian embassy and the Indian consulate in New York City. Sadly, the letters went unanswered for months, which finally led to them turning to the media for help.

The Toledo Museum took not just the Ganesha off display but handed over hundreds of other items gifted and purchased from a now defunct dealership to the US department of homeland security.

The case of the Manikkavaasagar was even more tricky. Just eight days after it was cleared by US Customs in late March 2006, it was bought by a private collector for $650,000 and went off the radar.

It was never exhibited or published till mid-2015, when increasing heat from US law enforcement led to the private collector 'voluntarily' surrendering the bronze to homeland security.

The identity of the dealer has been protected since he could demonstrate that he purchased the bronze in 'good faith' -- which, in Kapoor's case, was a fake provenance paper from his estranged girl friend's art dealership in Singapore.

Dated May 5, 2005, the letter claims the saint came 'from a private collection' and 'has been out of India for more than 30 years.'

Both the above bronzes were looted from the Sripuranthan temple in Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu, as was the Nataraja (returned by the National Gallery of Australia) and the Uma (returned by the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore).

Many other bronzes taken by the same gang from the Sutamalli temple in Tamil Nadu have been seized by homeland security in various Art of Past warehouses belonging to Subhash Kapoor and await procedural formalities to return.

The total number of bronzes stolen from just these two temples is 25 (17 from Sutamalli and eight from Sripuranthan).

There are other objects being returned which include seizures from the Toledo Museum and the Honolulu Academy of Arts, all of which show how a dedicated team working with an honest officer can usher in major changes and results.

The recent (and much-delayed) raids on a notorious art dealer (external link) in Chennai are a sure sign that the wheels have finally started to move in the right direction.

But these restitutions are still a miniscule fraction of what is actually being looted.

If India has to take a firm stance, it has to immediately do the following:

  • Set up a strong and dedicated central art squad;
  • Work on setting up a national archive;
  • Show more action in going after the entire smuggling network based on cooperation with international law enforcement agencies.

Vijay Kumar, or VJ as he calls himself, is an Indian history enthusiast, the blogger behind Poetry in Stone, and is responsible for identifying countless Indian treasures stolen and smuggled overseas.

Vijay Kumar