Recovery of US$100 million of antiquities masks government incompetence in protecting them

Behind the well-publicized move this week to repatriate as much as US$100 million worth of smuggled Indian antiquities from the US is a disheartening story of just how lax, if not outright incompetent, Indian authorities have been in guarding some of the country’s most precious treasures. Some 15 American museums this week are beginning the process of repatriating religious statuary, bronzes and terracotta pieces, some dating back 2,000 years.

US Attorney General Loretta Lynch handed back the means to repatriate more than 200 artefacts this week in a ceremony attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The recovery of the items is the result of a four-year rigorous US federal investigation named “Operation Hidden Idol” which blew the lid off a multi-million dollar smuggling racket involving notorious Indian antiquities smuggler Subhash Kapoor.

Dubbed “Indian Jones” by the US media, Kapoor is now awaiting trial in India on charges of trafficking the artefacts, looted from Indian temples, through his Upper East Side antiques business in New York. Among the pieces is also an idol of a Hindu mystic and poet, stolen from a temple in southern Chennai, valued at US$1.5 million. Another bronze sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesh is estimated to be 1,000 years old.

American authorities also confiscated 2,622 items worth US$107.6 million from Kapoor’s storerooms in Manhattan and Queens. They have described the art dealer — who owned an import company and an art gallery called ‘Art of the Past’ in New York – as the most audacious smuggler in American history. He has been charged with smuggling antiques from India with fake documents through a network spanning India, Pakistan, Dubai, Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Cambodia and Bangkok.

While Operation Hidden Idol will help India recover its priceless treasures, it has also once again spotlighted the thriving and unchecked smuggling of Indian antiques, the result of a combination of an apathetic bureaucracy, ineffective laws and an entrenched officials-art dealers nexus.