Sunday, January 16, 2011

Idols for Sale...

A recent article brought to my attention via the Museum Security Network provides an update on the ongoing idol/antiquities thefts still occurring throughout India. A Times of India story is now reporting that many of the so-called 'ashtadhatu' (eight metals) idols, the genuine article stolen from temples in many states throughout the country (see photo at left, taken from, can now be increasingly found for sale at many places of tourist renown (e.g. Agra, Varanasi, Allahabad, etc.). In fact, according to the article, 18 ashtadhatu idols have been stolen from three temples over the past two weeks alone (pre-dating Jan. 10th), in three ongoing cases!

As recently as last year (May, June, and September), several independent groups of criminals were arrested near the Nepalese border, part of a trend frequently noted by members of both the SOG (Special Operations Group: police) and STF (Special Task Forces: detectives); namely, that of India or Nepal based middlemen and criminal syndicates arranging for transport of the stolen idols and antiquities into Nepal for later transport to the international market. Apparently, states and regions such as Uttar Pradesh, Kashinagar and Kanpur have been especially hard hit, but it seems reasonable to expect that every state sharing a border with Nepal has seen smuggling events. Now, however, it appears that the stolen antiquities are increasingly sold through local channels in tourist hotspots such as those mentioned above, according to Arvind Chaturvedi, of the Special Task Force.

Although such thefts are in clear violation of the Indian Penal Code (sections 414 and 411), and the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972, the high prices involved still drive many to take the risks. Thus, only increased monitoring of porous international borders, bolstered customs agency staff, and increased night patrols of vulnerable temples (and open archaeological sites in general, I might add) will 'arrest' this problem. Unfortunately, it seems that communication problems between local priests, the police and investigating authorities is hampering this effort. Although one senior police official is on record in the article for 'vehemently denying' that his region (the Kanpur region) has become a 'hub of antique idol smuggling,' based solely on the occasional apprehension of smugglers heading for the border or to meet clients in urban areas, if the Special Task Force detectives are noting such a marked uptick in the number of arrests and cases, this is arguably still cause for concern.

Another issue raised by an unnamed customs official is the problem of within-country circulation of antiquities from north to south (and presumably vise versa) for "re-use" in different Hindu temples than those they came from. "During one of my trips to South India, many valuable sculptures, coins, manuscripts, statues, paintings, and ornaments from across the nation were freely available there in art markets," the article reports. One would hope that the purchasers of such items for religious purposes would question whether or not they were initially stolen! I will keep following developments in this situation as I encounter them, but here's hoping that the increased monitoring attested to in the article will be accompanied by at least some additional funding for local authorities to keep doing their jobs, as well as increased awareness by potential overseas purchasers that that intriguing, 'exotic,' idol for sale at the local night market, on eBay, or at an upscale gallery, just might not come from "an old family collection."

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