Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that he would return three culturally-significant artefacts to India during his upcoming visit in January.
The artefacts were bought in good faith by the National Gallery of Australia from Subhash Kapoor, who is facing criminal charges in India and the United States for allegedly smuggling over USD 146 million worth of stolen antiquities.
The artefacts being returned are a pair of 15th century door guardians (dvarapala) from Tamil Nadu and a 6th to 8th century serpent king (nagaraja) from Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh.
“Like India, we understand the value of our ancient cultures and artefacts,” Morrison said in a statement.
“The return of these artefacts is the right thing to do. This is another demonstration of the deep relationship between Australia and India,” he said.
Both India and Australia are party to the UNESCO 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property.
“The strong ties Australian and Indian institutions have made in recent years have helped develop important professional relationships and shared culture. The return of these artefacts also underscores the world’s debt to India’s magnificent culture, history and legacy,” the Minister for Foreign Affairs Marise Payne said.
The statement added that the Australian government does not have any role in the proceedings.
During his trip, Morrison is expected to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi and deliver the inaugural address at the Raisina Dialogue.
Singapore-based NRI Anuraag Saxena, co-founder of the India Pride Project, a volunteer organisation involved in tracking and recovering stolen Indian artefacts, has been at the front line of the efforts to have stolen artefacts returned to their rightful homes in India.
Earlier this year, he was present for the screening of documentary filmmaker Nikhil Singh Rajput’s 'Blood Buddhas’ at the Arth Cultural Fest at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for Arts in New Delhi which was followed by a panel discussion on the topic ‘Bring our Gods Home’.
The 25-minute film, hosted by Saxena and featuring political leaders like Dr Shashi Tharoor and art experts, gave viewers a sneak peek into the flow of stolen relics from India to the rest of the world.
Amateur art sleuth and member of the India Pride Project S Vijay Kumar said such smuggling networks "have been getting more brazen with the high sums involved these days. First were the days of the diplomatic pouch, later it moved to getting fakes made, procuring export licences and switching the originals during export. Nowadays, with blatant corruption and lack of experts within the system, container-loads go out with just a wrong declaration."