Stolen Buddhist sculpture finds way back to India

Stolen Buddhist sculpture finds way back to India

An ancient sculpture that formed part of a panel of Stupas in Andhra Pradesh and was stolen in the 1990s from a museum will find its way back to India after its recovery in Europe.

Art Recovery International (ARI), which works on the repatriation of stolen and looted historical artefacts, said it handed over the sculpture dating back to the second half of the 3rd century AD to Ambassador Santosh Jha at the High Commission of India in Brussels recently.

The organisation was able to negotiate an unconditional release of the artwork to the government of India after it was alerted about its history by the India Pride Project (IPP).

“The problem of stolen and looted art is not exclusive to the theft victim. Possessors of illicit objects are increasingly cognisant that they cannot easily sell, exhibit, or transport stolen artworks without facing possible seizure, legal proceedings, and reputational damage,” said Christopher A. Marinello, a lawyer and founder of ARI.

“Good faith acquisition is not always a saving grace. We can offer a confidential and discreet way to resolve these title issues,” he said.

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The artefact itself is a limestone upper panel of a pilaster, or column, bas-relief, which was part of the ruined stupas at Nagarjunakonda in Andhra Pradesh and housed in a major unnamed museum in India until it was stolen on or about 1995, when it was last photographed by an art historian. Such “Stupa Pilasters” illustrate incidents in the life of Lord Buddha. The recovered sculpture shows a court scene from Stupa 3 in Nagarjunakonda, where a royal couple sits at ease on a throne, attended by servants who stand behind the throne back while a female servant and a child play with a ram in the foreground.

Earlier this year, IPP Co-founder S. Vijay Kumar informed Marinello that the stolen limestone bas-relief had been offered for sale in 2018 by the Belgian Asian Art Trade. The purchaser had relied on a certificate of clearance from a UK-based organisation, which ARI says regularly “mints such documentation” for the art trade. The organisation said the process is wrongly used as a substitute for proper due diligence, without conducting provenance research on well documented and published antiquities.

“This is our third successful recovery in as many months with ARI and we are pleased at their ability to encourage good faith purchasers to do the right thing when faced with compelling evidence of theft and illicit removal,” said S. Vijay Kumar of the India Pride Project.

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“We are extremely grateful to the scholars and citizens who engage with us on a confidential basis to flag potentially problematic acquisitions or auction sales. We hope law enforcement in India and the museum custodians follow up with thorough investigations and museum audits,” he said.

Kumar highlighted that the sculpture is only one fragment that has been recovered, with many other missing artefacts out there.

“We thank Chris for his pro bono work in restoring such valuable stolen artefacts and hopefully we can solve many more such difficult cases in the future," added Kumar.

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