The Birmingham Museum of Art officially repatriated a stolen work of art to the nation of India in a formal ceremony that took place in New York City on the evening of September 4. Dr. Graham Boettcher, R. Hugh Daniel Director of the Birmingham Museum of Art, represented the BMA at the ceremony which was hosted by the Consulate General of India in New York, and attended by Consul General Sandeep Chakravorty. The BMA returned a stone sculpture of the Hindu deity, Shiva, nearly three years after it was discovered that the work was stolen out of India as a part of a $100 million international smuggling racket organized by art dealer Subhash Kapoor.
“The Birmingham Museum of Art follows a strict code of ethics to ensure that objects acquired for our collection are not among those stolen from protected sites of religious and/or cultural significance,” says Boettcher. “As soon as we learned of the unlawful provenance of this sculpture, we set out to return it to the nation and people of India. It is unquestionably the right thing to do and we are happy to know this important cultural treasure will soon be in its rightful home.”
The Art Fund of Birmingham, Inc.—a non-profit corporation with a mission to support the Birmingham Museum of Art—purchased the sculpture, titled Lingodhbhavamurti (Shiva Manifesting within the Linga of Flames), in 2008 from New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor of Art of the Past gallery, and placed it on loan to the BMA, where it remained on view until its return following discovery that the work had been looted from India.The nearly four-foot tall stone sculpture depicts a pillar of fire splitting open to reveal the god Shiva in all his glory, witnessed by the deities Brahma (in the form of a goose) and Vishnu (as a boar) posed above and below. With ancient origins that date the work to the Chola dynasty, the sculpture was created around 1150 CE.
Through his galleries, Kapoor sold antiquities to reputable museums around the world including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 2011, Kapoor was extradited to India to face charges over the multimillion dollar international antiquities looting operation through which he surreptitiously sold illegally-acquired artifacts to unsuspecting buyers using falsified paperwork. The BMA was contacted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in 2015 with compelling evidence that the work in its collection was smuggled illegally out of India. Following this revelation, the BMA began making arrangements for repatriation and, in the meantime, informed Museum patrons of the circumstances by posting an amended label alongside the object’s display.
The work was formally deaccessioned in August of this year in keeping with the principles outlined by its collections policy with the determination that the work was imported under violation of state, federal, or foreign laws. The sculpture was then shipped to New York whereupon it was processed by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office as evidence in the case against Subhash Kapoor. Shortly after the ceremony, the sculpture will make its final journey home to India.