Stolen Tirumankai Alvar Idol Found In British Museum

The idol of Tirumankai Alvar stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu has been found in a British Museum. The idol was bought by the museum from the infamous auction house Sotheby’s involved in the smuggling and selling of world heritage including India.

Stolen Tirumankai Alvar Idol found in British Museum
Stolen Tirumankai Alvar Idol found in British Museum

The Indian government has asked the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to return a 15th-century bronze idol that was apparently stolen from a temple in the 1960s. The Indian high commission in London said a formal request for restitution of the statue of Saint Tirumankai Alvar was made last Friday, reported The Guardian.

The move comes after the Ashmolean informed the high commission last December of new research that questioned the provenance of the sculpture, which was bought by the museum from Sotheby’s auction house in London in 1967.

An independent scholar found a 1957 photograph in the French Institute of Pondichéry, that appeared to depict the same idol in the temple of Sri Soundarrajaperumal, in a village near Kumbakonam in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. That sculpture was stolen in the early 1960s.

The sculpture, which is almost one metre tall, depicts Tirumankai Alvar, one of the Tamil poet-saints of south India, holding a sword and shield. The venerated saint, who lived in the 8th or 9th century, was a chieftain, a military commander, and a bandit before converting to the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism.

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Rahul Nangare, the first secretary of the Indian high commission in London, said it had received a report from police in Tamil Nadu that “unambiguously shows that the original idol has been stolen and replaced with a fake one, and that the stolen idol is the same one that is presently with the Ashmolean.

“Therefore, we have conveyed our formal request to them for restitution of the idol to India. The idol wing is now further investigating the matter about the original theft and subsequent smuggling out of the idol.”

Nagare thanked the Ashmolean for taking proactive steps to alert the high commission and expressed hope that “other museums would follow the example in dealing with suspected stolen pieces of our cultural heritage”. He said the Ashmolean was carrying out further due diligence on the provenance of the sculpture, with a museum official scheduled to visit India shortly.

A spokeswoman for the Ashmolean said there had been no claim against the sculpture. “The museum acquired the statue in good faith. According to the Sotheby’s catalogue the bronze was sold from the collection of Dr JR Belmont (1886-1981),” she said. “We currently have no indication of how the bronze entered his collection and we are continuing to investigate with the support of the Indian high commission.”

Other Indian bronzes once in the Belmont collection have fetched more than £490,000 at auction. The Ashmolean said that the scholar’s research had also raised questions over the provenance of several other bronzes in collections in Europe and the US. “Further research will be needed to determine whether they were taken out of [India] legally or otherwise,” the spokeswoman added.

Deaccessioning the sculpture would require the approval of the art and archaeology museum’s board and the vice-chancellor of Oxford University. This is not a random case with Oxford University, western museums and universities are full of treasures looted by the officers of East India Company.

Last year, a sandstone Duryodhana statue smuggler Douglas Latchford, a dealer in and collector of Southeast Asian antiquities who falsified documents to make looted treasures easier to sell on the art market was charged with trafficking artifacts. Involved in smuggling racket were Sotheby’s auction house and The Metropolitan Museum of Art (The Met), New York.

Recently the wife of Indian billionaire Mukesh Ambani, also Asia’s richest businessman; Nita Ambani, was elected to the board of The Met. The Met however, is known to be involved in smuggling of Indian antiques and has a long history of allegations and lawsuits about its status as an institutional buyer of looted and stolen antiquities.

Infact, The Met’s involvement in the illicit trafficking of cultural goods is so extensive that there is a dedicated course on the subject taught by Erin Thompson, Ph.D. in art history, Manhattan. The course is titled, Shenanigans at the Met: A Short History of Smuggling, Sex, Fakes, and other Faux Pas at New York’s Most Prominent Museum. The summary for the course says:

Ever wondered if the staff of the Metropolitan Museum of Art destroyed or radically alter works of art through the use of un-tested restoration techniques? Purchased antiquities they knew had been looted and illegally imported? Fondled their secretaries in back offices? Spent millions of dollars and displayed works long after the rest of the scholarly establishment mocked them as obvious fakes? Thanks to tell-all memoirs and investigative journalism, we now know that the answer to all these questions is yes – and how!

At the root of the problem are London based Auction Houses of Christie’s and Sotheby’s setup by the Intelligence Officers of the East India Company who looted the Indian artefacts, temple idols, manuscripts etc from the treasury after the sacking of Indian Kingdoms. These world famous auction housed were founded on the loot of British officers.

What is noteworthy is that these auction houses are still involved in the smuggling of Indian antiques, temple idols, manuscripts etc, and recently also involved in the case of diamond jeweler Nirav Modi as exposed by GreatGameIndia in the report Nirav Modi and the Smuggling of National Treasure. The issue of smuggling by these British auction houses was also recently raised by the Head Priest of Tirumala temple based on our research report The Smuggling Syndicate of Tirumala Tirupati Temples.

Colonial smuggling networks are the hotspots of terrorism today. This should be of utmost concern to our security establishment, since the antiques smuggled out of India directly funds terrorist activities. As an example, with the gains from selling one Buddha sculpture (stolen from Mathura and illicitly sold for $1 million), terrorists could literally fund a dozen Paris-style attacks. To put that in an extrapolated perspective, that’s 1,500 lives that could be lost by smuggling out just one piece of Indian heritage.

If you wish to have a historical perspective of the destruction of Indian Knowledge Bases and how it was smuggled out of India and the geopolitical players involved, check out our exclusive book India in Cognitive Dissonance.

GreatGameIndia is a journal on Geopolitics and International Relations. Get to know the Geopolitical threats India is facing in our exclusive book India in Cognitive Dissonance. Past magazine issues can be accessed from the Archives section.

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