How the mystery of the Missing Buddha statue was solved
57 years after a priceless hoard of bronze statues was stolen from Bihar, one of them was found and returned to India on Independence Day
On 22 August 1961, almost 57 years to the day, a hoard of 14 priceless bronze statues, excavated from the site of the Buddhist monastery of Nalanda, Bihar, went missing. The statues, each an outstanding work of art, were exemplars of what art historians call the Pala school of art, named after the Buddhist dynasty that ruled much of the modern states of Bihar and West Bengal, as well as what is now Bangladesh, between the 8th and 12th centuries. One of the statues stolen that night was a six-and-a-half-inch bronze of the Buddha seated in the bhumisparsha mudra (earth-touching gesture). Following a remarkable turn of events, on 15 August, it was handed over to the Indian high commissioner to England, Y. K. Sinha, by Scotland Yard.
It isn’t often that the country’s stolen heritage art treasures are located, let alone repatriated, especially after such a lengthy passage of time. Mint reached out to S. Vijay Kumar of the India Pride Project, who led the investigation into this missing piece, to find out how the statue had been identified and procured in a remarkably short period. Kumar, 44, hails from Chennai, but works in Singapore as general manager for south-east Asia for a commercial shipping line. His interest in antiquities led him to pursue the locating of stolen artwork as a hobby. He has been doing this for over a decade, before formalising his pursuit in 2014 by forming the India Pride Project. He has been instrumental in matching and pursuing most of the antiquities that have been returned to India in the past four years, including the 10th century Durga Mahishasuramardini idol that was presented by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2015.
What set Kumar on the track of the Buddha image was a chance conversation, earlier in the year, between Sachindra S. Biswas, a former director general of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), and Kumar’s acquaintance, the economist and author, Sanjeev Sanyal. “Sanjeev was speaking about my work with Dr Biswas, when he said that there’s an old case that India has been pursuing since the early 1960s without any success," says Kumar over the phone from Singapore. The case he was referring to was the 1961 theft, as well as a second one in 1962, when two more statues had gone missing from the Nalanda site museum. “I told Dr Biswas that I was aware of the case, but that I was only aware of a list of the items lost, no photographic evidence," says Kumar.
Kumar says most Western museums require photographic proof to even begin a dialogue over once-stolen antiquities in their collections, and ASI isn’t very good at keeping records. Fortunately for Kumar, Biswas had kept photographs of some of the statues stolen in 1961 and 1962, as well as detailed descriptions from department notings. Armed with these, Kumar decided to keep an eye out for the 16 items on the international art market. “We work with these informal groups of like-minded people, from Cambodia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Italy and elsewhere. So we have a small informal group and we share information. Whenever I find something that is a Khmer artefact, for example, I let Cambodia know; when they find something Indian, they would tell me," says Kumar. One such person is Lynda Albertson, 56, CEO of the NGO Association for Research into Crimes against Art. Albertson and Kumar have collaborated in the past, so when Albertson informed Kumar that she was going to visit The European Fine Arts Fair (Tefaf) in Maastricht, the Netherlands, between 16-24 March, Kumar asked her to look out for Indian antiques. “I gave her a list of dealers who deal in Indian objects regularly, and we found a couple of them at the trade fair," says Kumar.
“I photographed the Buddha at the Tefaf, an event I was monitoring for illicit art, as pieces sometimes find their way on to the licit market, where they are exhibited at high-end art fairs," says Albertson over email.
While visiting the fair, Albertson had found two of the dealers on Kumar’s list, as well as a third that wasn’t. This dealer, based in London, was selling Himalayan Buddhist art. When they shared notes over WhatsApp, one of the images she had recorded turned out to be of a Buddha from the Nalanda hoard.
The statue was listed by the dealer as a 7th century object, at variance with the ASI’s 12th century dating of the statue. Interestingly, this also appears in the 1981 book Indo-Tibetan Bronzes by art historian Ulrich von Schroeder.
Albertson and Kumar compared the photographs with those provided by Biswas, and concluded that barring a few modifications and restorations, they were the same piece. On the 16th, Albertson contacted the head of the art and antiques crime unit of the Netherlands National Police Force as well as Interpol with supporting evidence. Meanwhile, Kumar alerted the ASI. However, it took a few days for the two to convince the relevant authorities, and Tefaf was coming to an end. To prevent the Buddha’s sale, the Dutch police contacted the dealer on the final day of the trade fair. The dealer told the police that the firm was selling the piece on consignment; its current owner was not in the Netherlands, and the dealer planned to take the Buddha back to London if the piece remained unsold.
With the Buddha on its way back to London, Kumar and Albertson passed on the relevant documents to Constable Sophie Hayes of New Scotland Yard’s arts and antiquities unit. Meanwhile, ASI director general Usha Sharma wrote a letter to the Indian high commission in London, apprising them of the situation. “The dealer asked how we’d identified the piece, so we provided the documents which matched the points of similarity," says Kumar, “but the dealer said there are 10 points where the image doesn’t match the one from the ASI records."
For due diligence, Constable Hayes contacted the International Council of Museums (Icom), which arranged for a neutral expert to study the statue.
The expert took a few months to carefully examine the piece, before Icom sent a report validating Kumar’s and Albertson’s claims. The bronze was made by the cire perdue or “lost wax" process. This would mean that the wax model for the piece was used only once, making the statue a stand-alone piece. That having been established, the same damaged location, as was noted in ASI’s record, was seen in the statue, and the report concurred with ASI’s description of the bronze’s discolouration due to burning. Among other points of similarity, the clincher was the disproportionately large right hand of the Buddha, touching the earth. This alone would make the piece unique.
The owner and dealer were asked to give up the piece. They agreed to hand over the statue, but have insisted on their identities being kept a secret, as it would harm their reputation on the art market. Kumar says it would have been impossible to pursue a criminal investigation against them, as the statue had entered the licit market long before it had reached its current owner.
Speaking to The Guardian on 15 August, Hayes said: “This case has been a true example of cooperation between law enforcement, the trade and scholars. Particular credit must go to the eagle-eyed informants who made us aware that the missing piece had been located after so many years."
For her part, Albertson is happy with the turn of events. “Too often, people put fancy price tags to stolen and looted artefacts. For an antiquities-rich source company, it is all too easy to forget the cultural cost of lost art. Every object stolen or looted is a loss to that nation and each loss, when there are many, as is the case with India, has a cumulative effect," she says.
According to the ASI, the statue is currently at the Indian high commission in London and will soon make its way to Delhi, and ultimately, back to Nalanda.
Kumar, meanwhile, is using Biswas’ archival documents to pursue India’s claim on another Buddha statue from the 1961 theft, which currently resides at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the US.