INTERVIEW/ PRATEEP PHILIP, ADDITIONAL DIRECTOR GENERAL OF POLICE, TAMIL NADU ECONOMIC OFFENCES WING
The Tamil Nadu idol wing, under the economic offences wing, is one of the few teams in India dedicated to tracking down and returning stolen artefacts.
What does the idol wing do?
Since the launch of this wing in 1983, we have registered more than 271 cases and have recovered antiques worth Rs 1,000 crore. In at least 70 per cent of the cases, the accused have been convicted, which shows our commitment to nab the thieves.
Why is the illegal trade of art and artefacts so lucrative?
In Tamil Nadu, the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department is the custodian of all temples. There are about 35,000 shrines and temples in Tamil Nadu, each having antique idols whose value runs into several crores of rupees. In these temples, 90 per cent of the artefacts and idols are not registered under the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972. The Chola idols are popular worldwide for their antique value and the five metals used in them. These are the target for all international traffickers in the US, the UK, Singapore and Canada.
Your thoughts on the Subhash Kapoor case.
It is the number one case in the history of art theft. Tamil Nadu was his hunting ground. As per our investigations, he was the kingpin and his mastermind was Sanjeevi Asokan, a Keralite who is also an art dealer. They used a unique methodology to smuggle the idols. The trial has just begun. Because of our investigation and consequent letters rogatory, the US authorities have indicted one Aaron Freedman, an employee of Art of The Past gallery for “criminal possession of stolen property” and “conspiracy”. Freedman pleaded guilty to all charges, including possession of two Shiva and two Amman [Hindu goddess] idols and also admitted to having shipped and sold a Shiva idol, stolen from a temple in Tamil Nadu, to the National Gallery of Australia. Further evidence shows Kapoor’s direct involvement in the illegal export of Pratyangira [Hindu goddess] stone idol and one child Sambandar [poet-saint] antique metal idol for Rs 1.6 crore and Rs 5.1 crore, respectively. Efforts are being taken to repatriate these.
Which route is usually used to smuggle out these idols?
The major route is the Chennai port. The other exit point is the Mumbai port.