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Thousands of ancient idols have been stolen from India.  Volunteer art sleuths are on the hunt to repatriate them.

Thus began one of the many cases Kumar has taken on as part of a mission he has pursued for more than a decade: to hunt down and recover the thousands of religious idols that have been looted from Indian temples. and sold to museums and wealthy collectors via a thriving international gray market.

Since 2008, Kumar, 48, has helped recover nearly 300 antiquities, from exquisite bronzes of dancing Shivas from the 10th century to an imposing Buddhist sculpture from the 2nd century BC. J.-C. carved in sandstone. He has collected objects from art dealers in Amsterdam, private collectors in London, and institutions such as the National Gallery of Australia and the Honolulu Museum of Art. He says he and Indian officials are working with the University of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archeology to return one piece and have discussed with the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to do the same for half a dozen. of artifacts.

“Due to lax law enforcement, India has always been seen as fair game for antiquities trafficking compared to places like Italy,” said Kumar, who works in the mining industry. shipping by day but runs his side operation – his true passion – from a tiny, rented office in Chennai, his hometown in southern India.

“The difference between India, Italy or Egypt, he says, is that you are stealing from a god that someone literally worshiped the day before. They are living gods that we are trying to bring home.

India was one of more than 100 countries to ratify a 1970 United Nations convention that prohibits the trafficking of cultural heritage and requires the return of items that have been proven stolen. This convention and other laws in various countries give Kumar the legal basis to pursue items stolen from India since the 1970s, and they explain why he focuses less on the large-scale looting that took place during the colonial period. from India.

Antiquities have been heavily trafficked in the modern era. The market is greased by the comings and goings of thieves in poor villages who loot and sell the prized idols of their own communities – and by the continued demand from wealthy collectors and museums on the other side of the world.

In the 35 years to 2012, India recovered less than two dozen stolen coins, according to a government audit. But the number of items recovered has skyrocketed over the past decade, thanks in part to Kumar’s group of volunteers, called the India Pride Project, which researchers say is unique in the scale of its operations and its antecedents.

“When we hear of Indian cultural objects being returned from private and public collections, Vijay is often the one lurking behind the scenes,” said Emiline Smith, an expert at the University of Glasgow on art crime in Asia. South and Southeast. “The strength of his operation is that it’s covert and outsourced, so no one knows who his team really is. Is it one guy? Or is it a hundred?

In reality, says Kumar, it’s about 40 people.

The India Pride Project has volunteers around the world who scour museums and galleries, collect and scan auction catalogs and infiltrate private art exhibitions and Facebook buy and sell groups. “We are lucky that there are Indian IT people working in every city,” Kumar joked.

Whenever he receives new information about a work of Indian art, whether it is hidden in a dealer’s back room or openly displayed in a museum, Kumar looks for distinguishing marks – imperfections in the casting of the metal , chipped bases, nicks and bruises. Then he compares them to his most valuable tool, a database of around 10,000 pieces of temple art that he keeps on a laptop he takes everywhere. If there is a match and Kumar can prove that the item was originally stolen, he first notifies law enforcement, most of the time.

In recent years, Kumar has become so active and well-known in South Asian artistic circles that he is seen as both a blessing and a potential headache for some law enforcement officials.

Matthew Bogdanos, a veteran prosecutor who heads the antiquities trafficking unit at the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and has worked with Kumar on several cases, described him as an “extraordinarily valuable asset” who could also be overzealous. with publicly shamed dealers and galleries.

“The bad guys are definitely following him,” Bogdanos said. “We’ve had inquiries where the curator at the museum or the auction house sits down and says, ‘Oh, that’s from Vijay, isn’t it? We have already seen his tweet. ”

In the age of social media, vigilantes like Kumar can “go public a little too quickly,” Bogdanos said. “Information and evidence that might have been available is disappearing.”

Growing up in the state of Tamil Nadu, Kumar recalled, his grandmother harbored a keen interest in Indian history after giving him a series of historical fiction in the Tamil language which recounted the imaginary exploits of the founder. of the Chola dynasty, Rajaraja the Great.

Kumar studied accounting at university and then embarked on a career booking ships for shipping companies in Singapore. But he spent most of his off hours in online forums, writing essays on Indian antiquities. In 2006, he started a blog called Poetry in Stone, likening it to a “dummy guide to temples”.

Soon Kumar was accumulating a readership in India and abroad, and he was organizing week-long tours across India to visit and document temple art. “I’m not a religious person,” he said. “I was just showing up to look at the art, but soon realized there was so much missing. I said, ‘What’s going on?’ ”

Kumar had his first big break as an art sleuth in 2011, when he noticed that objects sold by New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor had been documented, along with photographs, in French studies on temples in Tamil Nadu in the 1950s. Kumar’s discovery, which was followed up by Indian police, provided the latest piece to a long investigation into Kapoor by Bogdanos’ office and the US Department of Homeland Security.

Kapoor was arrested on an Interpol warrant in 2011 on charges of trafficking in antiquities. Today, he is still on trial in India, while more than 1,000 works of art from South and Southeast Asia are still in the custody of the Manhattan District Attorney, who is seeking his extradition to the states. -United. Kapoor pleaded not guilty.

Since 2011, Kumar has been instrumental in the seizure by US authorities of a sandstone sculpture of Jain spiritual figure Rishabhanatha from a Christie’s auction. He helped recover a looted Buddha statue from Nalanda, one of the oldest centers of Buddhist learning. In 2016, after his tipster told him about the hidden bronze in the London dealer’s backroom, Kumar embarked on one of his toughest cases.

He broke it almost by accident. One day in 2018, Kumar was researching the provenance of a figurine of the Hindu god Hanuman in a Singapore museum when he spotted in his database a 1956 photograph of the same statue taken by anthropologists in a village in Tamil. Nadu called Ananda Mangalam. Next to the Hanuman stood a bronze of Aries which resembled the one stored in London, along with two other deities. They were part of a set, Kumar realized.

He notified the police and investigators found local records showing that villagers had indeed reported four statues stolen from the same temple on November 21, 1978. Shortly after, British police visited the gallery in London, confirmed the correspondence and reached an agreement with the croupier to quietly hand over three of the four coins; the fourth idol remains in Singapore. Villagers welcomed the pieces on November 21, exactly 43 years after they disappeared.

That day, locals lit fireworks, carried the statues in a two-mile-long procession and immediately began worshiping them again, recalled Madhavan Iyer, the temple’s chief priest. “We celebrated grandly,” Iyer said. “But it’s not complete until the fourth deity returns. Kumar promised it.

These days, Kumar can’t sit still for long before being interrupted by messages and calls from his sprawling network. As Kumar planted himself in his cubbyhole, Madhu, a volunteer who called him “boss”, asked for advice on whether a temple in the village should install surveillance cameras. Iyer wanted an update on the progress of sculpture in Singapore. Christopher Marinello, a London-based lawyer who specializes in recovering lost works of art, pushed Kumar on WhatsApp to discuss the case of the Milan dealer who wanted to return an ill-gotten bronze – quietly. Oh, Marinello added, he had also found another case in Brussels.

When he wasn’t distracted by calls, Kumar was scrolling through his laptop. There were ongoing cases and cracked cases. There were photos of bronzes and sandstone sculptures stored in folders upon folders. There were blurry photos sent in by tipsters who had attended private art sales in New York, showing women in black dresses and men in polo shirts holding their wine glasses, beaming beside secular objects of worship.

Kumar rubbed his eyes in disbelief or exhaustion.

Despite his best efforts, he said, antiquities trafficking was so rampant that in absolute terms he was not even recovering a significant fraction of it.

“But finding one in 100 can still be a deterrent,” he said. “It’s like wildlife: when the shopping stops, the looting stops.”

Kavitha Muralidharan contributed to this report.

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