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Restoring South Asian culture one artifact at a time

By Dhruv Anish Dec. 8, 2021

To many Americans, the Star-Spangled Banner, Plymouth Rock, and the Declaration of Independence hold great cultural significance, symbolizing the American spirit. Similarly, South Asia is especially rich in equally culturally valuable artifacts that reflect the history and religion of their nations. By stealing and smuggling them to the West for profit, New York-based antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor has undermined the importance of these artworks, but he was not the first to do so. Awareness of such thefts has led to the rise of a worldwide movement to repatriate stolen artifacts, especially those from India and other parts of South Asia.

Jude Tantawy Art

On Oct. 30, 2011, Kapoor was arrested on counts of art theft, grand larceny and criminal possession of stolen property for his 37-year operation smuggling and selling roughly 2,500 South Asian artifacts, altogether worth over $100 million, per the New York Times. Kapoor worked as the owner of the Art of the Past gallery in New York, traveling to remote Indian villages, stealing religious artwork and replacing them with replicas. To transport the artwork back to his gallery or to buyers, Kapoor would go through the Chennai-based company Selva Exports, which would then send the stolen relics around the world. In 2011, Interpol and Indian officials began tracking shipments of stolen artifacts. Through various arrests and testimonies, they finally uncovered that Kapoor was at the center of the scheme.

Some of the most famous artifacts stolen during this time period include the Kohinoor Diamond, the Ring of Tipu Sultan and the Amaravati Marbles ... within two centuries, Britain removed a reported $45 trillion worth of treasures from India.

“Stealing and selling cultural artwork is damaging to any country’s national identity, making Kapoor’s arrest fully justified,” Sophomore Matthew Phan said.

South Asia has been a target of cultural theft since Britain invaded and began colonizing India. By roughly 1858, the British established full control over the nation, seizing historical artifacts—many of which contain precious materials such as gold and silver—for themselves. Some of the most famous artifacts stolen during this time period include the Kohinoor Diamond, the Ring of Tipu Sultan and the Amaravati Marbles, all of which are still unreturned. According to Al Jazeera, within two centuries, Britain removed a reported $45 trillion dollars worth of treasures from India.

“Artifacts creatively preserve the stories and cultures of ancient societies. Their historical and religious significance and contribution to national pride make returning artifacts essential,” Senior Aakash Sriram said.

Notably, countries around the world have been taking action to ensure that stolen idols in their possession are returned to their nations of origin. As per the Art Newspaper, on Oct. 28, Manhattan officials restored 248 of the idols stolen by Kapoor, found in his storage units and family members’ residences, to India, Pakistan, Cambodia and other South Asian nations. Similarly, CNN reported that the National Gallery of Australia returned 14 smuggled pieces of artwork to India on July 30. Some citizens are even taking matters into their own hands, making efforts to retrieve culturally significant art. For instance, S. Vijay Kumar, author of “The Idol Thief” and cofounder of the India Pride Project—a global program that uses social media to identify and repatriate stolen artifacts to India—is responsible for the returning of over 300 artifacts to India.

Some citizens are even taking matters into their own hands, making efforts to retrieve culturally significant art

“India is a land of so much richness, unknown to even the Indian people. I began my art blog with the intent of educating the public about Indian art and culture, but after a few years, I realized that the art I had documented in my blog was being looted and smuggled out of India. We want to bring back our motifs to restore India’s pride, one artifact at a time, which is why we call ourselves the Indian Pride Project,” Kumar said.

As more artifacts are returned to their respective countries within South Asia, the people of the region will be able to appreciate and honor their heritage with more interest and a better sense of connection.


About the Contributors

Dhruv Anish

Staff Writer

Dhruv Anish is a senior at Leland High School and a staff writer for The Charger Account. He likes to watch movies and listen to music in his spare time. His favorite actor is Robert Deniro and his favorite movie is The Godfather: Part 2.

Jude Tantawy


Jude Tantawy is a sophomore at Leland High School. She is an artist for The Charger Account. During her free time she loves to draw, paint, do photography, cook, bake, and listen to music.

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