India asks US museum to return bronze statue stolen from Tamil Nadu temple

Government of India has made a formal request for the return of a 15th century bronze idol of a Tamil saint believed to be stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu and found its way to a UK museum at Oxford University through auction.

The Indian high commission in London said a formal request for restitution of the statue of Saint Tirumankai Alvar was made, according to a report in The Guardian.

The move comes after the Ashmolean informed the high commission last December of new research that questioned the provenance of the sculpture, which was bought by the museum from Sotheby’s auction house in London in 1967.

An independent scholar found a 1957 photograph in the French Institute of Pondichéry, that appeared to depict the same idol in the temple of Sri Soundarrajaperumal, in a village near Kumbakonam in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. That sculpture was stolen in the early 1960s.

The statue of Saint Tirumankai Alvar was acquired by the Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford from Sotheby’s auction house in 1967 from the collection of a collector named J R Belmont (1886-1981).

The museum says that it was alerted to the origins of the ancient statue by an independent researcher in November last year, following which it alerted the Indian High Commission.

“Research in the photo archives of the IFP-EFEO (Institut Francais de Pondichery and the Ecole francaise d’Extreme-Orient) appears to show the same bronze in the temple of Shri Soundarrajaperumal Kovil in Tamil Nadu in 1957,” a statement from the Ashmolean Museum said.