Indian officials have received a Buddha statue that went missing more than two decades ago from the altar at one of the country’s most important Buddhist pilgrimage sites, the Devisthan Kundalpur Temple in Bihar.
The stone statue, an almost 1,200-year-old relic, was voluntarily surrendered by an Italian collector to India’s consulate general in Milan on Thursday.
“The climate is changing for restitution,” said Christopher A. Marinello, a lawyer specializing in locating looted and stolen art who helped negotiate the statue’s return. “Collectors around the world are facing criminal charges and collections being seized as more and more jurisdictions say it is unacceptable to possess looted and stolen art.”
Marinello has tracked down the missing Buddha in collaboration with Vijay Kumar, founder of the India Pride Project, a non-profit organization working with the Indian government to recover looted artifacts.
Four years ago, Kumar was looking for the sacred image when it appeared in the sales catalog of a French dealer. He said in an interview this week that regulations in France protecting good faith buyers of stolen artifacts made it difficult to act quickly. With just two weeks left of the sale, Kumar has not formally requested an investigation into its provenance, which he said would have required him to notify Interpol and obtain police reports of when the idol nearly It was looted 20 years ago. But the statue didn’t sell and the track went cold.
Marinello joined the case last year and found the object in an Italian collection. The Buddha’s owner, also known as an idol of Avalokiteshwara Padamapani, voluntarily renounced the object when he received archival photos of the Indian temple. As a condition of the transfer, officials are not disclosing the owner’s identity.
The statue depicts Buddha holding the stem of a blooming lotus in his left hand, the Indian government said in a statement, with two female attendants under his feet. It was sculpted for the temple sometime between the eighth and twelfth centuries. The temple is located near Kurkihar, a village where a wealth of more than 220 bronze statues were unearthed in 1930 during an archaeological dig. Most of those sculptures are now kept at the Patna Museum in Bihar.
When it arrives in India, the image will be sent to the Archaeological Survey of India in New Delhi for study.
Kumar and Marinello are among a growing number of civilian activists on behalf of Asian countries to hunt for stolen antiquities. In December, the couple also retrieved a 10th-century statue of a goat’s head yogini from a garden in the English countryside.
“The repatriation of our rightful artifacts continues,” said Indian Culture Minister G. Kishan Reddy, said at the time†
The work never seems to end. “We are still scratching the surface,” said Kumar, who said he still knows thousands of looted Indian artifacts. Nearly 250 artifacts were returned by US officials last year as part of an investigation into a loot ring that authorities say was owned by antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor. Kapoor is currently imprisoned in India on charges of smuggling and theft.
“Any successful return is a deterrent,” Kumar said. “Now criminals know that Indian art is no longer fair game.”