In August 2019, HCI London was informed by India Pride Project that 4 antique idols (Shri Rama, Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman), stolen from a temple built in Vijayanagara period in Tamil Nadu and smuggled out of India, may be in the UK. It was conveyed to HCI that the idol of Shri Rama was suspected to be in possession of an individual in London.
Once the idol was verified by comparison with relevant records, the matter was taken up with the Art and Antique Unit of the London Metropolitan Police as well as the Idol wing of Tamil Nadu police. The Idol wing of Tamil Nadu police sent a comprehensive report confirming that the theft took place in 1978 at the Vishnu temple and also provided the expert opinion about match of the idol with IFP photo archive.
The Art and Antique Unit of the London Metropolitan Police who investigated the matter based on information and documents provided to them, contacted the present owner of the statue and conveyed our Mission’s request to return the statue as it appeared, prima facie, to be a stolen idol from a living temple in India. The art collector turned out to be a good faith purchaser who had carried out due diligence checks including through a check of Art Loss Register Certificates. The Met Police further found that vendor involved is now deceased due to which there were no grounds to open any investigation in the UK.
Interestingly the owner of the Rama idol, informed the HCI and Met Police that he was in possession of two other idols of Sita and Lakshmana, which he has handed over to the High Commissioner earlier today at India House. All the three idols are being transferred to Tamil Nadu Government
Today, at India House, while receiving the three idols, the High Commissioner conveyed her happiness at seeking this case investigated and conducted so swiftly. She thanked the individual, who had voluntarily returned all three idols. She also thanked the London Metropolitan Police and the Idol Wing of Tamil Nadu Police for their prompt action and positive role in the investigation process leading to the repatriation of three idols.
The Minister for Culture and Tourism Sh. Prahlad Singh Patel attended the event via video link as the Chief Guest. He congratulated the High Commission for this restitution and also thanked the London Met Police and Tamil Nadu idol wing for their excellent work. He praised the positive role played by the Archaeological Survey of India, especially over the last six years in getting back pieces of India’s cultural heritage.
The event was also attended by senior officials from Tamil Nadu including the Chief Secretary Mr. K. Shanmugam and DG Police Mr. JK Tripathi. Speaking on the occasion the Chief Secretary Thanked the High Commission for their efforts in making this repatriation successful.
The event was also attended by officers of the Metropolitan Police including DC Usha Evans, who represented the event on behalf of the Met. Police Hindu Association. Speaking on the occasion, Detective Chief Inspector, Met Police Tim Wright stated-
“The Metropolitan Police are proud to have been involved in the return of these Chola bronzes to India. Not only are they beautiful and historically significant, they are of course of religious importance, and therefore it is particularly gratifying that they are to be returned to the temple from which they were taken. We are delighted to be joined here today by a representative from the Metropolitan Police’s Hindu Association in recognition of this.”
For the past few years, the Government of India has given a renewed impetus to the protection of India's cultural heritage. MEA along with the Archaeological Survey of India and India’s law enforcement agencies such as the DRI has been pursuing investigations towards restitution of our stolen and smuggled antiquities. Successful restitution's have taken place in recent years from various countries including Germany, France, Australia and the USA. HCI London has succeeded in restitution and repatriation of the following priceless idols:
The Bramha- Brahmani sculpture, stolen from the World heritage site Rani-Ki Vav, which could be returned to the ASI in 2017. It has found a prominent place in the Purana Quila museum in Delhi, in the gallery curated by the ASI. The objects retrieved through the MEA and other law enforcement agencies are prominently displayed in this gallery.
On 15th August, 2018 a 12th Century Bronze statue of Bhagawan Buddha was restituted to the High Commissioner by the London Metropolitan Police. This was handed over to the Union Minister for Culture of India by the Union Finance Minister of India in 2019.
On 15th August 2019 another two antiques – a 17th Century Bronze idol of Navanitha Krishna and a 2nd century limestone Carved Pillar motif were returned to the High Commissioner by the Embassy of USA, London.
On 29th July, 2020 the Natesha Shiva statue stolen from the Ghateshwar temple, Baroli in Rajasthan stolen in 1998 was repatriated to the Archaeological Survey of India.
HCI is working on many such cases at present. We are confident that in coming days, with this partnership of the ASI, law enforcement agencies, and the independent experts, we will be successful in returning many more pieces of our cultural heritage to India.