The Indian government has formally requested the return of a 15th century bronze idol from the Ashmolean Museum, after new research found the sculpture was apparently stolen from an Indian temple in the 1960s.
The request comes after an independent scholar published new research last December which suggested the statue, depicting Saint Tirumankai Alvar, was pictured in a 1957 photograph in the temple of Sri Soundarrajaperumal, in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
In a statement, the Ashmolean said: “In November 2019, an independent scholar brought new research to our attention relating to the provenance of an Indian 15thcentury bronze of Saint Tirumankai Alvar which was acquired by the Ashmolean from Sothebys in 1967. Research in the photo archives of the IFP-EFEO (Institut Français de Pondichery and the Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient) appears to show the same bronze in the temple of Shri Soundarrajaperumal Kovil in Tamil Nadu in 1957. 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.
“Although there was no claim against the object, the Museum officially brought the matter to the attention of the Indian High Commission on 16th December 2019 requesting any further information (including possible police records) that would aid us in establishing the work’s provenance and noting that we were open to holding further discussions around the possible repatriation of the sculpture. The Indian High Commissioner acknowledged our letter on 24 December and informed us that the matter and the information we provided had been forwarded to the Indian authorities and expressing their appreciation that the University of Oxford and the Ashmolean had acted proactively in this matter.”
The First Secretary of the Indian High Commission in London, Rahul Nangare, told The Guardian that it had received a report from police in Tamil Nadu that “unambiguously shows that the original idol has been stolen and replaced with a fake one, and that the stolen idol is the same one that is presently with the Ashmolean.
“Therefore, we have conveyed our formal request to them for restitution of the idol to India.”
Nangare thanked the Museum for its proactivity and cooperation in contacting the High Commission, noting the Ashmolean is currently carrying out due diligence on the provenance of the sculpture, with one museum official due to visit India in the near future. The First Secretary expressed hope that “other museums would follow the example in dealing with suspected stolen pieces of our cultural heritage.”
The Ashmolean originally acquired the statue from Sotheby’s
auction house in London in 1967. The Museum commented: “The Museum acquired the statue in good faith in 1967. According to the Sotheby’s catalogue, the bronze was sold from the collection of the collector Dr J. R. Belmont (1886 – 1981). We currently have no indication of how the bronze entered his collection and we are continuing to investigate with the support of the Indian High Commission.”
The sculpture stands at one metre tall, depicting Tirumankai, one of the Tamil poet-saints of south India, holding aloft a sword and shield. Alvar was the last of the 12 Alvar saints of south India, known for the Vaishnava tradition of Hinduism. Prior to his conversion to Vaishnava, Tirumankai was a military commander, a chieftain, and a bandit.