A group of art enthusiasts are using social media in their spare time to locate and bring stolen artefacts back to India.
What is India Pride Project (IPP)?
It is a group of art lovers who are using social media to identify religious artefacts stolen from temples around India and bring them back.
The volunteers go through old catalogues from auction houses, using any blemishes or imperfections to match with idols stolen from temples. Founded by two Singapore-based art enthusiasts, it now includes activists from all over the world. The work is unpaid, but they say that it is all worth it when an idol is returned to the temple it belongs in.
How are the pieces stolen?
Prateep V Philip, who heads Tamil Nadu’s Idol Wing, India’s only police team dedicated to tackling art theft, says the thousands of small shrines that dot the state are “easy prey.”
“Whenever a theft took place in the past, sometimes people were not even aware,” Phillip said.
“It would be a derelict temple only visited at certain times of the year. So when a theft took place it was discovered long after.”
This means much of India’s stolen sacred art is never even registered as missing. This makes it easy to be sold on the international market.
How common is art theft in India?
It is a thriving business across India. But the richest pickings are in the state of Tamil Nadu, where centuries-old religious artefacts with huge potential sale values in the West lie largely unprotected in out-of-the-way rural temples.
Has IPP had any success?
Two years ago, the group claimed a significant victory when the National Gallery of Australia returned a $5 million bronze statue of the Hindu god Shiva that had been stolen from a Tamil Nadu temple.
This year, Philip’s team arrested an art dealer in Chennai after recovering hundreds of metal and stone statues of Hindu gods from a warehouse.
Do galleries know they are buying stolen goods?
Arvind Venkatraman, an IPP member, says when the galleries hear that an idol they have is stolen, “typically there is a denial.”
“Whether it’s Australia, Europe, Singapore or the US, initially there will be resistance from the museum curators … because they’ve spent a lot of money and they wouldn’t want to let go of an object.”
The IPP once organised a social media campaign comparing images of stolen idols to ones on display at certain museums.