ICE returns recovered, 'most wanted' stolen antiquities to India

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NEW YORK — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) returned three recovered sculptures, valued at more than $1.5 million, to the government of India Tuesday during a repatriation ceremony at the consulate in New York City. One of the objects – a 350-pound sandstone sculpture stolen from an Indian temple in 2009 – was listed as one of INTERPOL's top 10 most wanted stolen works of art.

HSI Executive Associate Director James A. Dinkins presented the artifacts to Consul General of India Dnyaneshwar M. Mulay, alongside INTERPOL Washington Director Shawn Bray.

"The excellent international cooperation between the United States and India led to the recovery and return of these priceless antiquities," said Dinkins. "The pilfering of a nation's cultural patrimony cannot and will not be tolerated."

"Prevention of illegal trade in antiquities has emerged as an important area of cooperation between India and the United States as can be seen from this recent recovery of stolen Indian antiquities," said Mulay. "I deeply appreciate the excellent work done by ICE HSI in getting these three priceless Indian assets recovered. The successful investigations and repatriation of these cultural artifacts underscores the importance of growing institutional partnership, which is of great significance to both countries."

"There is no better example of what can be accomplished through the collaboration between US and international law enforcement via INTERPOL than the astounding results of this investigation, which have led to today's repatriation of these artifacts to their rightful place with the people of India," said Bray. "INTERPOL Washington is proud to have been able to assist ICE Homeland Security Investigations in obtaining the documentation and images necessary to help identify the objects as those stolen from India."

Two of the three artifacts returned to India were reported in 2009 by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), who notified the Indian Consulate about two sandstone sculptures stolen from the Gadgach Temple in Atru, Rajasthan, India. The 350-pound "Vishnu and Lakshmi" sandstone sculpture dates back to the 11th or 12th century and was listed as No. 6 on INTERPOL's top 10 most wanted works of art. Also stolen from the temple and repatriated during the Jan. 14 ceremony was the 600-pound "Vishnu and Parvati" sandstone sculpture, dating to the same period.

The third artifact is a male deity black sandstone sculpture, depicting a Bodhisattva, a popular subject in Buddhist art, and is believed to date back to the 11th or early 12th century from either the Indian State of Bihar or Bengal.

The investigation that led to this repatriation began April 13, 2010, when HSI New York special agents received information that the Indian sandstone sculptures recently looted from India were being offered for sale in the United States.  HSI special agents discovered that the "Vishnu and Lakshmi" was transported from India to Hong Kong. From there, it was sold to a dealer in Thailand, and then resold to a buyer in London. The London buyer shipped the sculpture to New York City for an exhibition in March 2010. On April 15, 2010, HSI special agents recovered the piece while it was being shipped back to London.

On July 12, 2010, as a direct result of the "Vishnu and Lakshmi" seizure, a sister piece, the "Vishnu and Parvati," was seized. It was transported to Hong Kong, sold to a buyer in New York and then sold and shipped to a buyer in Basel, Switzerland.

On July 7, 2011, the Indian black stone Bodhisattva figure was discovered being smuggled into the United States at Newark Airport by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. HSI special agents seized it after discovering that its accompanying paperwork declared Great Britain as a false country of origin. In addition, the item was grossly undervalued.

The New York County District Attorney's Office assisted in this investigation.

The last ICE cultural property repatriation to India was in 2006 when ICE agents in NY returned a ninth century stone idol that had been stolen from a temple in Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh in 2000.

HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illegal importation and distribution of cultural property, including the illicit trafficking of cultural property, especially objects that have been reported lost or stolen. The HSI Office of International Affairs, through its 67 attaché offices in 48 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.

HSI specially trained investigators, assigned to both domestic and international offices, partner with governments, agencies and experts to protect cultural antiquities. They also provide cultural property investigative training to law enforcement partners for crimes involving stolen property and art, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.

Since 2007, more than 7,150 artifacts have been returned to 26 countries, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria, 15th to 18th century manuscripts from Italy and Peru, as well as cultural artifacts from China, Cambodia and Iraq.

Learn more about HSI cultural property, art and antiquities investigations. Members of the public who have information about suspected stolen cultural property are urged to call the toll-free HSI tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete its online tip form.

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