Washington: Nearly 15 American museums will begin returning stolen artefacts to India in response to a major federal investigation which began in 2012. It all started with federal gum shoes receiving a tip-off about seven suspiciously heavy crates being shipped off to the US described as “marble garden table sets.”

A closer examination revealed the crates contained priceless antiques, setting off “Operation Hidden Idol,” which resulted in the arrest of six people and the recovery of artefacts worth over $100 million. Antiquities crook Subhash Kapoor dubbed “Indian Jones” by the US media is accused of smuggling the statues into the US. He is now awaiting trial in India on charges of trafficking in $100 million worth of stolen artefacts looted from temples in Tamil Nadu through his Upper East Side antiques business.

On Monday, the US government returned over 200 artefacts in a repatriation ceremony headlined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

“The US is committed to ensuring that no nation is robbed of the objects that inform its identity, shape its traditions and inspire its citizens,” said Attorney General Lynch.

“Today, as part of that ongoing commitment, more than 200 antiquities and cultural artefacts that speak to India’s astounding history and beautiful culture are beginning their journey home. It is my hope — and the hope of the American people — that this repatriation will serve as a sign of our great respect for India’s culture; our deep admiration for its people; and our appreciation for the ties between our nations,” said Lynch.

The items returned include statues, bronzes and terra cotta pieces, some dating back 2,000 years, looted from some of India’s biggest temples. Among the pieces returned is a statue of Saint Manikkavichavakar, a Hindu mystic and poet from the Chola period (circa 850 AD to 1250 AD) stolen from the Sivan Temple in Chennai. It is valued at an estimated $1.5 million. There is also a 11th Century bronze of Ganesh.

“For some, these artefacts may be measured in monetary terms but for us this is beyond that. It’s a part of our culture and heritage,” Modi said at the ceremony held at the Blair House on Monday.

“We are grateful to President Obama for returning India’s stolen cultural heritage. People are attracted to India for its ancient civilisation. We have towns dating back 5,000 years,” said Modi.

US investigators worked with the Indian government, Interpol, the Department of Justice, the Department of Homeland Security and the Manhattan district attorney’s office to recover the these priceless Indian artefacts.

An Interpol red notice led to Kapoor’s arrest in late-2011 at Frankfurt Airport, in Germany. He was extradited to India in July 2012 to face criminal charges.

According to US agents, for the past decade or so, Kapoor allegedly accepted shipments of stolen Indian antiquities packed among knockoffs. The paperwork would say the statues were all fakes. He used the clever ruse to ship genuine antiques out of India, mixed in with the fakes.


Modi’s US visit: America to return a treasure trove of 200 artefacts stolen from India