UK Museum Asked to Return a 15th-Century Bronze Idol

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has been asked to return an Indian bronze idol of a Hindu saint. Here’s how things are unfolding.

Mar 18, 2020By Kaylee Randall
Indian Bronze Idol depicting Saint-Thirumangai Alwar
Indian Bronze Idol depicting Saint-Thirumangai Alwar

In mid-February, the Indian government asked the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford to return a 15th-century bronze idol depicting Saint Thirumangai Alwar.

This “formal request for restitution of the idol” was the result of a tip from an independent scholar that questioned its provenance. Still, the request has no malicious intent as one might expect when dealing with potentially stolen goods.

The Ashmolean is taking a proactive approach and were actually the ones to alert the Indian government about the concerns that were brought up by this scholar back in November 2019.

Bronze Idol of Saint Thirumangai Alwar

Another bronze idol from the Napier Museum
Another bronze idol from the Napier Museum

The work in question depicts the Tamil poet and saint from south India, Saint Thirumangai Alwar who lived sometime between the 8th and 9th centuries. He was a chieftain, bandit, and military commander before becoming a Hindu saint.

Standing at nearly 23 inches (60 cm) tall, most of the idols depicting this dynamic character held a sword and shield as this “stolen” one does. The question that remains is, how did the Ashmolean Museum come to own stolen goods?


Provenance of the “Stolen” Indian Idol

The temple of Sri Soundararaja Perumal
The temple of Sri Soundararaja Perumal

According to the independent scholar that alerted the museum to the potential criminal history of this bronze Indian idol, archival research came up with a photograph from 1957 of what seems to be the same sculpture in the temple of Sri Soundararaja Perumal.

The sculpture in that photo was stolen and replaced with a fake replica in the early 1960s and its striking resemblance to the one that the Ashmolean owns caused accusations to fly.

In 1967, the Ashmolean bought the bronze idol from a Sotheby’s auction in London for £850. In the catalog from that auction, Sotheby’s reported the previous owner to be the collector Dr. J.R. Belmont who had amassed one of the most prestigious collections of Indian sculptures and artifacts from the 1950s onward.

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK © Getty Images / Tracy Packer
Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK © Getty Images / Tracy Packer

So, overall, it’s unclear who actually committed the crime but as the current owners of the idol, the Ashmolean is responsible for sorting through the next steps.

Plans for Returning the Stolen Art

Sotheby’s London where the Ashmolean Museum bought the idol in 1967
Sotheby’s London where the Ashmolean Museum bought the idol in 1967

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Although the Ashmolean and the Indian government are continuing to work together to investigate these accusations further, a spokesman from the Indian High Commission told the Art Newspaper that they were thankful for the Ashmolean’s open approach.

The museum has been proactive about getting to the bottom of whatever happened in regards to this bronze Indian idol and it makes the process a whole lot smoother for everyone involved. The Indian government is hopeful that other museums will follow in their example when dealing with art that is suspected to be stolen.

Moving forward, the appropriate authorities are still working with the independent scholar who was the original whistleblower to establish the accurate provenance for the Saint Thirumangai Alwar idol.

At the moment, the goal is to figure out the pre-1967 provenance since they currently haven’t found a claimant. If this pre-Ashmolean provenance proves to be questionable, the plan is to repatriate the object into the hands of the Indian government.

Art as Culture

Location in Tamil Nadu, India

Museums are very safe places for artifacts and historical artwork from various countries and cultures around the world. However, this story brings to light that stolen art, even if it’s now safely in the hands of a museum, is usually expected to be handled by the cultural leaders of its home country.

Especially when it comes to religious artifacts, such as this bronze idol that was stolen from a religious temple in a village near Kumbakonam the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, these art pieces are important to the lineage of culture and it will always be argued that their rightful place is in their original home.

Potentially, it’s a matter of getting to choose. If this idol was, in fact, stolen (which it’s looking like it was), it makes sense that the Indian government would ask for its return even if it eventually ends up in a museum. The ability to choose what happens to an artwork that has intrinsic value to Indian religious history and culture is likely a factor.

Last year, Egypt was up in arms about a “stolen” King Tut bust going up for auction at Christie’s London. Since almost all of the ancient tombs were the victims of looting, the Egyptian government was understandably upset when the piece went up for sale for millions of dollars.

An Egyptian Brown Quartzite Head Of The God Amen With The Features Of The Pharaoh Tutankhamen, via Christie’s, Sold for GBP 4,746,250 on 4 July 2019
An Egyptian Brown Quartzite Head Of The God Amen With The Features Of The Pharaoh Tutankhamen, via Christie’s, Sold for GBP 4,746,250 on 4 July 2019

Christie’s stated that there was nothing improper about the sale as it had been on display for years prior to the auction without a fuss. So, where do we draw the line? When does the statute of limitations run out if a valuable artifact was obtained by criminal means decades or even centuries ago?

It’s impossible to separate arts and culture since one always influences the other. Still, it’s nice to see that this dispute is being resolved reasonably and kindly. But, with only about $1,000 at stake, it makes you think – what would happen if this idol was worth millions?

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By Kaylee RandallKaylee Randall is a contributing writer, originally from Florida. who is deeply interested and invested in the arts. She lives in Australia and writes about health, fitness, art, and entertainment while sharing her own stories of transition on her personal blog.