Canada balks at returning Indian statue of a woman believed stolen from Khajuraho temple

Published: July 22, 2014
Canada-Edmonton-stolen

Khajuraho Devi Jagadambi Temple. Wikipedia Photo

DOUGLAS QUAN
POSTMEDIA NEWS 

India is trying to repatriate a “voluptuous” 12th-century statue of a woman with a parrot on her bare shoulder that somehow ended up in the hands of the Canadian Department of Heritage.

The life-sized sandstone statue — apparently stolen from Khajuraho, a United Nations world heritage site — has been in the possession of heritage officials in Edmonton since 2011, but Canada has not handed it over because Indian authorities can’t provide proof of ownership or that it was stolen, the Economic Times reported Tuesday.

In a statement to Postmedia News, the Indian High Commission in Ottawa said the Archaeological Survey of India had “confirmed that the sculpture is of Indian origin” and that a written request has been sent to the Department of Canadian Heritage to “release and hand over the sculpture to the High Commission of India.”

Officials with the Department of Canadian Heritage refused an interview request Tuesday and would not acknowledge that the statue was in their possession. In an emailed statement, department spokeswoman Mahtab Farahani wrote that Canada would seek to return cultural property belonging to another state under the rules of the 1977 Cultural Property Export and Import Act.

While that state does not need to demonstrate ownership of the property, it is required to show that “the cultural property was illegally exported from that state,” she said.

Canadian heritage officials wrote to the Indian High Commission in Ottawa about the statue back in 2011, according to the Times article, but it took three years for the commission to forward the message to India. A photo of the statue is being circulated to all the field offices of the Archaeological Survey of India to see if anyone has any record of the theft.

“The statue is clearly a product of the Bundelkhand region and fits in perfectly with the other sculptures of Khajuraho, but we can’t do anything until we can show Canadian authorities proof of ownership,” a senior official with the archaeological survey told the Times.

India’s Central Bureau of Investigation, which investigates major crimes, this month was contacted by the Archaeological Survey of India about the statue and it, too, has opened an investigation, agency spokeswoman Kanchan Prasad told Postmedia News. “(The statue) is invaluable. It’s a very ancient property. That’s what is being told to us,” Prasad said.

It is not clear how Canadian heritage officials came into possession of the statue. Prasad said it was her understanding that Canadian customs officials intercepted it.

Lisa White, a spokeswoman for the Canada Border Services Agency in Alberta, said privacy laws prevented her from speaking about specific cases. “Certain antiquities or cultural objects considered to have historical significance to their country of origin cannot be brought into Canada without the appropriate permits,” she said in an email.

Khajuraho is a major tourist destination about 600 kilometres southeast of New Delhi featuring medieval temples famously adorned with erotic sculptures. The temples were built during the Chandella dynasty and belonged to two religions: Hinduism and Jainism.

According to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization website, the Chandella rulers promoted various Tantric doctrines and sculptors of the time depicted “all aspects of life, including sex.”

Other highly valued artworks have been looted from Indian temples before. Earlier this year, a sandstone sculpture from the 11th or 12th century that had been on Interpol’s list of  top 10 most wanted stolen pieces of art was returned to India. The 350-pound sculpture representing the deities Vishnu and Lakshmi had been stolen in 2009 from the Gadgach Temple in Atru, Rajasthan, India.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents learned that the sculpture had been transported to Hong Kong from India. From there, it was sold to a dealer in Thailand and then re-sold to a buyer in London, officials said. The London buyer shipped the sculpture to New York City for an exhibition in March 2010. Officials intercepted it before it could be shipped back to London.

Dquan@Postmedia.com

Twitter.com/dougquan

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