Relic Hunter

Shipping executive Vijay Kumar’s gripping crime book, The Idol Thief’ is based on actual events that reveal the true colours of the art world

10/12/2018 12:46:21 AM
written By : Nithya Subramanian & Shobha Tsering Bhalla Print

It has action, drama, revenge of the scorned woman and more. If you are a fan of detective books, this one is for you. But ‘The Idol Thief: The True Story of The Looting Of India’s Temples’ is better than any work of fiction as it is completely real. 

Written by stolen idol hunter, S Vijay Kumar, the book takes you into the dark and murky of world of art where unscrupulous dealers use any means to make a kill. “Be safe, my Lord, within this earth” is how the book begins, setting the tone of what is to follow. 

Though, the action is spread over locations as varied as India, Germany, the US, the UK and Singapore, the book also traces the personal journey of the author who has contributed significantly to the recovery of many stolen Indian idols. It deals largely with the arrest of New York-based Subash Kapoor, a well-known art dealer and owner of Art Of The Past, who had strong connections with the top galleries of the world. While he was feted in the art community, little was known about his illegal ways of acquiring them. But as the saying goes, ‘Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned’, Singapore based gallerist Grace Paramaspry Punusamy, Kapoor’s former girlfriend turned whistle-blower aiding in his eventual arrest in Germany. 

The book has all the makings of a thriller as it not only describes the modus operandi of the vandalists, but also gives you a glimpse of their personalities. No wonder the movie rights to this book have already been purchased, details of which have not been disclosed yet.

“I did not want to write the book as a PhD thesis, which nobody reads. I, in fact, wanted the common man to understand and read it,” said Vijay Kumar who also added that it angers him when people categorise the book as fiction.

Kumar who is a senior executive at a shipping company, moved to Singapore 13 years ago, but his interest in art began at a young age. He hails from a small village near Madras where his family’s lineage harks back to a clan of village headmen. His forefathers had also built some temples, but it was a Tamil book by Kalki that sparked his inaterest. “Kalki wrote historic fiction on Raja Raja Chola, but he took a period of which there were no written records. Actually Raja Raja was never in line for the throne. He had an elder brother who was assassinated, and his uncle took over. Only after his uncle stepped down did Raja Raja become the king and go after his brother’s killers. So Kalki picked that period, a grey area, to weave this epic and he did it episodically, by publishing it weekly in a magazine. People would actually go to the train station at 4am in the morning to get the copy. Then it came out as a compilation, which I read and got hooked on to history.”

This interest led Kumar to go on temple visits and one such trip to Kanchipuram Kailsanathar temple built by a Rajasimha ruler of the Pallava dynasty in the 8th century which acted as a trigger. At the temple he saw an exquisite statute of Shiva catching the Ganga in two strands of hair but realised that there was scant knowledge of the idol’s identity. “I saw an Indian man who looked at the statue, called it Vishnu and walked away. I thought there is a need for a dummy’s guide to art, but there was nothing. There were a lot of scholars who had written books, but those were like PhD thesis aimed at exhibiting the author’s intellect,” he said.

That’s when he started writing a blog. “Soon, I realised that it was not just a platform for to write but a great assimilator for like-minded people,” he said which led to his quest for searching lost idols. This also resulted in the India Pride Project, a volunteer-network spread across the globe to track and bring back India’s stolen heritage.

Kumar said that this network resulted in the return of a bronze statute of Shiva valued at US$5 million from the National Gallery of Australia and a 12th century statue of Buddha stolen from India nearly 60 years ago after it was discovered at an art fair in the UK.

The book talks about the importance ancient Indians gave to protecting their deities. Whenever these were under threat, they were ceremoniously buried by their care-takers and remained there for centuries and these men died protecting their secrets.

But idol thieves found ways to steal these precious properties and once the objects left the country, there was no way to prove that they were removed. “I think the art world is trying to maintain a dark and white side, but to me the business is all grey, every art dealer, every auction house, is complicit,” insists the 44-year-old self-taught historian.

One of the main reasons for this is that unlike Italy, India does not have a robust archiving system. The Mediterranean country has a 3400-strong art crime unit under its Ministry of Defence, comprising experts, extensive database and archives. Between 1972-2012, it has recovered over 378,000 objects.

Kumar and his team, however, are doing what the Indian government has not done for recovering stolen idols. “We have the largest collection of India’s disbursed art around the world. So you name any museum and I can tell what objects they have from India, which year they bought it and so on,” he said. 

And it is this relentless pursuit that has helped in the capture of art thieves. Even when the Kapoor case came up “museums and collectors thought that India would be lax. They thought they would weather the storm for a few years and then everything will go quiet. That is something I didn’t want to happen. The media today is extremely helpful and in 2014, I roped in Anuraag Saxena, and decided that unless I put my face out we would not be taken seriously. We created the India Pride Project, and that grew by social media outreach,” he said.

Today, law enforcement authorities know that the Indian Pride Project is a credible group, which is not doing this for money, so they are willing to share information.  

Elaborating on the need for museums to get their act together, the Singapore-based shipping executive says that no efforts must be spared when it comes to due diligence. He noted that when Singapore hosted a big exhibition on Nalanda, Kapoor had lent a large Nagapatnam stone Buddha, which was stolen from Tamil Nadu. Later the idol went back for sale at a price tag three times higher as a result of having been exhibited at such a prestigious exhibition. “Dealers always look at good provenance and this was perfect. Lending an exhibit may seem like an innocent act, but it has a multiplier effect,” he said. This has also resulted in a nexus between researchers and the art market.

“What happens in the art world is that if it goes to the museum it is publically displayed or if it goes to the auction, there is a record. Now after we have started getting active, auctions have gone underground, there is a reduction in the number of Indian objects that have come for open auction sale. I wouldn’t say it’s a great achievement as private placements are happening, at least the big ticket buyers are gone,” he said.

Singapore too finds a substantial mention in the book. “I think Singapore has played an important role in the capture of Subhash Kapoor. I have talked about the public trial between him and his girlfriend here, which Kapoor won. She was an important whistle blower in the early stages. Also, one object, the Uma that was displayed at the Asian Civilisations Museum was returned back.” However, Kumar believes that Singapore too like Australia must go through a total revamp to build a robust framework to prevent the purchase of stolen idols.

Now that Kumar has become a well-recognised relic hunter, has he ever felt physically threatened? He acknowledged that though he receives lucrative offers and invitations to coveted art events, he is not seduced by the lure of glamour or money. He seeks inspiration from ancient temple keepers who even sacrificed their lives for the idols. “I am doing God’s work. If you are going to be scared of thieves and robbers, the good cannot be saved. Personally I don’t think it’s a big issue. God will take care,” he said.

While Kapoor awaits trial, his 12 warehouses in New York have over 2622 objects valued at $108 million as standing stock. Obviously Vijay Kumar has a lot more to do.   


1 comment for “Relic Hunter”

  1. josef
    Posted Monday, October 15, 2018 at 3:08:55 PM

    It was very well authored and easy to understand. Unlike additional blogs I have read which are really not that good. I also found your Hostgator coupon code posts very interesting.

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