US Returns More Than 200 Stolen Artifacts to India After Federal Investigation

More than 200 antiquities were returned to the government of India.

— -- Nine years ago, federal investigators received a tip about a shipment of seven crates destined for the U.S. described as “marble garden table sets.”

Examination of the shipment revealed that it actually contained numerous antiquities, setting off “Operation Hidden Idol,” which resulted in the arrest of six people and the recovery of artifacts worth more than $100 million, according to Homeland Security Investigations (HSI), an investigative arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

On Monday, more than 200 of those artifacts were returned to the government of India in a joint ceremony with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Department of Homeland Security returned religious statues, bronzes and terracotta pieces which were looted from some of India’s “most treasured religious sites,” according to DHS. Some of the items date back 2,000 years.

The artifacts returned to India today include a statue of Saint Manikkavichavakar, a Hindu mystic and poet from the Chola period (circa 850 AD to 1250 AD), that was stolen from the Sivan Temple in Chennai, India. It is valued at an estimated $1.5 million.

The items also include a bronze sculpture of the Hindu god Ganesh estimated to be 1,000 years old.

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

The majority of the antiquities in this collection were seized during the operation that began nearly a decade ago.

The shipment that sparked the investigation was allegedly imported by former New York-based art dealer Subhash Kapoor, who is now awaiting trial in India for allegedly looting tens of millions of dollars’ worth of rare antiquities from several nations, according to ICE. He has pleaded not guilty.

In addition to Kappor, five people were arrested in connection to the looted artifacts. Some items allegedly brought into the U.S. through the alleged scheme were found in the Honolulu Museum and Peabody Essex. Those items were turned over to federal authorities.

Over the past decade, the U.S. has returned more than 7,500 artifacts to countries around the world. Last summer, a $15 million Picasso painting was turned over to France at least 14 years after it was stolen from a Paris museum. And, just last month, a stolen Christopher Columbus letter, which turned up in the Library of Congress, was returned to Italy.