India requests UK museum at Oxford for ancient idol stolen from Tamil Nadu temple

The statue of Saint Tirumankai Alvar was acquired by Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford from Sotheby’s auction house in 1967 from the collection of a collector named J R Belmont (1886-1981)

Photo courtesy:
Photo courtesy:


India has made a formal request for the return of a 15th-century bronze idol of a Tamil saint believed to be stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu and found its way to a UK museum at Oxford University through auction.

The statue of Saint Tirumankai Alvar was acquired by the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford from Sotheby's auction house in 1967 from the collection of a collector named J R Belmont (1886-1981).

The museum says that it was alerted to the origins of the ancient statue by an independent researcher in November last year, following which it alerted the Indian High Commission.

"Research in the photo archives of the IFP-EFEO (Institut Francais de Pondichery and the Ecole Francaise d'Extreme-Orient) appears to show the same bronze in the temple of Shri Soundarrajaperumal Kovil in Tamil Nadu in 1957," a statement from the Ashmolean Museum said on Monday.

"The Ashmolean was informed that the bronze is one of a number of bronzes in collections in Europe and the United States identified by this researcher through the IFP-EFEO archive," the statement said.

Although there was no claim against the object, the museum officially brought the matter to the attention of the Indian High Commission on December 16 last year, requesting further information, including possible police records, that would help them establish the work's provenance.

"We were open to holding further discussions around the possible repatriation of the sculpture," the museum said.

Indian High Commissioner in the UK Ruchi Ghanashyam acknowledged the "proactive" move of the museum soon after and the matter was forwarded to the Indian authorities for follow up, with a formal request for the restitution of the idol sent to the museum earlier this month.

"In our request, we have stated that the police report furnished by the idol wing unambiguously shows that the original idol as is found in the IFP archives has been stolen and replaced with a fake one and that the stolen idol is the same one that is at present with the Ashmolean," said Rahul Nangare, First Secretary (Trade) at the Indian High Commission in London.

"After we provided them with the police report along with the formal request for restitution, Ashmolean has informed that they are now carrying out further due diligence with an official from Ashmolean also scheduled to visit India shortly. We have requested them to expedite the same so that the final decision is taken at the earliest," he said.

The museum, which holds some of the world's most famous art and archaeology artefacts, says it acquired the statue in "good faith" in 1967.

"We currently have no indication of how the bronze entered his [Belmont] collection and we are continuing to investigate with the support of the Indian High Commission," the museum said.

There have been a number of instances of stolen Indian artefacts being restored from the UK to India, most recently in August last year when a limestone carved relief sculpture, originating from Andhra Pradesh, and a "Navaneetha Krishna" bronze sculpture originating from 17th century Tamil Nadu, were handed over to the Indian High Commissioner to the UK following a joint US-UK investigation involving Scotland Yard's Art and Antiques Unit.

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