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July 29, 2020

A flourishing trade in illicit antiquities despite what the market wants the public to believe

Way back in February 1998 thieves arrived at the Baroli Temples Complex on the outskirts of Rawatbhata taluk, one of the earliest temple complexes in Rajasthan.  Once there, they set to work removing an elegantly carved sculpture of Nataraj, a depiction of the Hindu god Shiva as Lord of the Dance, from an ornamental niche attached to the thousand-year-old beehive-shaped Ghatesvara Mahadeva Temple, the most prominent and the largest of the eight temples located at the sacred site.  

Ghatesvara Mahadeva Temple in Rajasthan
A well-organized group of thieves known for targeting objects from temples or other cultural sites in India, the culprits used a jackhammer and deftly removed the statue from its centuries-old resting place.  It was then brought to Vaman Narayan Ghiya, a middleman, known to purchase stolen or looted objects from a network of intermediaries.  Ghiya had the ability to smuggle artworks out of India through a network of companies in Mumbai, Delhi, and Switzerland. 

The Nataraj in situ at the
Ghatesvara Mahadeva Temple
The extent of Ghiya's three decades of operation in the illicit art biz was such that at the time of his arrest five years later, in June 2003, law enforcement officers discovered hundreds of photographs of ancient Indian sculptures, many of which depicted idols recently pried away from temple walls as well as sixty-eight glossy auction catalogues from auction powerhouses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London and New York.

But the villagers near the Baroli Temples Complex were so outraged by the theft that it is believed Ghiya quickly commissioned a replica and ordered his henchmen to leave it near the Rawatbhata Police Station police where it originally was at first mistaken to be the original. Worried that it might be stolen again, the new Nataraj was not returned to the Ghatesvara Mahadeva Temple and was instead stored with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) is an Indian government agency attached to the Ministry of Culture responsible for archaeological research.

During interrogation, where Ghiya was asked to flag the pieces he was involved moving, he marked nearly 700.  One, the original Nataraj, had been smuggled to England, sold to an unnamed dealer and then purchased by John"Kas" Kasmin, a British art dealer and collector.

Identified with the dealer in 2005, Kasmin agreed to return the sculpture which was still in his possession and handed it over to the Indian High Commission that same year. Since then, it has sat, in London, waiting to come home, until this week. Inspected by the ASI in 2017 in London it was, at last, confirmed that the London sculpture was indeed the original looted Natarajs and arrangements began to finally send this idol home. 

If you would like to read more about the rape of India's idols, ARCA suggests Peter Watson's  book and the BBC programme “Sotheby’s, The Inside Story”.  It goes into extensive detail explaining the work of the Rajasthan police and the investigation opened by the superintendent of police, Shri Anand Srivastava titled Operation Black Hole. 
Yogini Vrishanana

India Pride Project would like to take the opportunity of this object's homecoming to make an appeal to any collector in possession of a Yogini Vrishanana, a sister sculpture to the one depicted here.  Looted by the same gang, one was eventually restituted in 2013.   The other matching 10th-century stone sculpture has been missing for 22 years.