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A Case Study On Stolen Antiquities From India – Summary

by Kartikey May 30th 2020

India is the safe haven for smuggling of ancient antiquities. According to UNESCO, an estimated 50,000 idols and artefacts had been stolen from India till 1989. The number, apparently, doubled and tripled over the years. In any given decade starting from the 1950s, according to conservative estimates, the number of Indian idols smuggled was between 10,000 to 20,000, valued at about Rs. 20,000 crores. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, 4,408 items were stolen from Indian temples between 2010 and 2012. Only 2,913 idols and antiquities have been traced to museums abroad in the last two decades. These alarming stats are sufficient enough to testify what India has become for antiquity smugglers.

Relevance of subject matter in recent times?

The current relevance of this subject matter owes its credit to the two significant developments, namely:

1. Tabling of CAG report, 2013 (REPORT TITLED: PERFORMANCE AUDIT OF PRESERVATION AND CONSERVATION OF MONUMENTS AND ANTIQUITIES). Since then no action has been taken on the suggestions made under this CAG report by Indian Government.

2. The buzz of a new Bill on this subject proposed by ASI  (THE ANTIQUITIES AND ART TREASURES REGULATION, EXPORT AND IMPORT CONTROL BILL, 2018). The proposed Bill, if passed, will be highly detrimental to the restoration and preservation of smuggled antiquities from India.

Modus operandi involved in smuggling of antiquities

Mode 1 : For smuggling of small antiquities.


Dealers and auction houses are equipped with research materials on our ancient sites. In some cases, they are even assisted by local experts, who conduct site visits, wherein they identify the merit of idols or else hire local smugglers to visit sites, take photos and offer it to networks for potential buyers — over email, social media and WhatsApp. Once the target gets identified, the price is negotiated and local dealers engage low profile thieves to commit theft of idols. Those low profile thieves, without knowing the presence of larger syndicate, commit theft and take the stolen idol to a place safe hiding or else they drop the same to some nearby forests, tanks or ponds. If the theft goes unnoticed, they move in to take away everything from the site. If caught, thieves easily get bail on the charges of minor theft.

Pictographic representation.

Mode 2 : For smuggling large size antiquities.


The modus of smuggling large sized artefacts is bit more complex and sophisticated in which smugglers / antiquity dealers offer the replicas to export promotion boards or the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), to obtain an export license. The original is shipped off while the fakes are left in the temple, where unsuspecting devotees offer their prayers. Art dealers operating on a large scale ship the idols out by declaring that they are newly made handicrafts, brass ware and even as garden furniture. Adding that the shipments often end up at intermediary locations like Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore, where fake paperwork is generated.

Pictographic representation.

Broken idols : The most vulnerable one.

In temples across the country, priceless sculptures are priced out of their niches because of some damage. The tag of “binnam” is given and a donor is induced to fund a modern replica. They are then left outside, making them prime targets.

Restoration and recovery rates

According to Dr. Mahesh Sharma, Minister of State for Culture and Tourism (Independent Charge), the Archaeological Survey of India has recovered 40 antiquities 27 among them were recovered in the last 4 years. Out of this, 50% of the antiquities were from Tamil Nadu – Reason better documentation of antiquities in that State. States like Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Rajasthan and West Bengal suffer the maximum from antiquities looting – Due to poor documentation. The official response towards stolen antiquities is dismal in India – Items, which were seized way back in 2007, have still not made their way home.

Cases registration rates.

According to the ministry of culture, 101 antiquities were stolen between 2000 and 2016 from 3,650 protected historical monuments around the country [There are about 5 Lakh unprotected monuments]. National Crime Records data, compiled from FIRs registered in police stations across the country, reveals a more realistic figure – 4,115 cases of ‘cultural property’ stolen in 2010-2014. Of these, 1,130 cases were resolved, leading to recoveries, but there are still 3,000 unsolved cases in just these four years. Add to these statistics the thefts in obscure temples in remote corners of India for which even police cases aren’t filed.

Conviction rates.

When arrests are made, the accused are not punished severely enough. In India, National Crime Records data compiled from police stations across the country, revealed 4,115 cases of stolen cultural property in 2010-2014 – which include bronze and stone sculptures, paintings, epigraphs, architectural elements and other works. An estimated 10,00020,000 idols have been trafficked out of the country every decade after 1950 by an elite clique of art smugglers. However, the absence of a national archive or art squad coupled with scant official interest in tracking stolen idols means that antiquities worth millions of dollars are lying in warehouses, museums or art galleries abroad.

The most highlighted case so far – Subhas Kapoor arrest. 

American authorities – confiscated 2,622 items worth $107.6 million from Kapoor’s storerooms in Manhattan and Queens – have described him as the most ambitious antiquities smuggler in American history. In June this year, the ASI unearthed a trove of Indian antiquities in Singapore, also allegedly procured from Kapoor. The lot included 30 objects, including idols and paintings whose provenance could be traced to the 10th century. Most of these were sold by Kapoor’s gallery between 2007 and 2012 to Singapore.

Enforcement agencies involved in checking smuggling.

Unlike other source countries like Egypt or Italy, we do not have dedicated law enforcement agencies that can deal with art theft. Currently following authorities are working are incharge of monitoring smuggling of ancient antiquities, namely:

  1. ARCHAEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF INDIA (ASI) – Act as custodian of artifacts but not the enforcer of law.
  2. IDOL WING IN TAMIL NADU – Active but chronically understaffed.

ASI June 2016 workshop.

June 2016 – Workshop by  ASI in Bengaluru on “Prevention of Illicit Trafficking of Indian Cultural Wealth” – Attended by State Archaeology Department, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) and the Idol Wing of Tamil Nadu were present –  ASI did not share the case files and supporting images of the widely publicized seizure of the 2,622 objects by Homeland Security in the 12 New York warehouses of Kapoor in 2012 with the State Archeology Teams. In light of this episode, it is clear that our system is porous and the certification process flawed. Customs, DRI and ASI must come up with a white paper of how they have or will tighten the export control and if possible such a report should have statistics of the number of officers deployed on customs checks with experience in tackling number of shipments stopped and referred to ASI for expert review, and data on prosecution of such shipments.

Interpol database on Stolen antiquities.

Interpol has a dedicated Art-Crimes Wing based in Lyon, France. They have an enviable database of about 50,000 stolen heritage objects. Enforcement authorities across the world use this database on a regular basis to track and recover stolen heritage. India unfortunately, neither contributes to this database, nor leverages it to track heritage-crimes.


According to the National Mission for Monument and Antiquities, there are approximately 7 million antiquities in India. But by March this year, only 1.3 million had been documented. A report by the Comptroller and Audit General stated in 2013 that the ASI had never participated or collected information on Indian antiquities put on sale at Sotheby’s and Christie’s as there was no clear provision in the Antiquities Act, 1972 for doing so. The aspect of documentation has two challenging fronts to address in India:

  1. Antiquities in “protected monuments / heritage sites”.
  2. Antiquities in “non protected monument / heritage sites”

The later category so far left completely unaddressed when it comes to documentation, so if there is antiquity theft from the site of non protected monuments, we cannot track them back and even if we do it is almost impossible to prove ownership in the absence of proper documentation.

So, one of the biggest problems in getting back artifacts illegally exported is establishing ownership, an up-to-date register will make it easier to do this.