Mumbai Crime: Indian heritage looter nabbed in Gamdevi

DRI arrests top US-based smuggler of Indian-origin after raids at his Gamdevi home and Byculla godown throw up 11 antique sculptures valued at billions of dollars, which he’d sell at global auctions after faking ASI certificates

One of the seized sculptures
One of the seized sculptures

After a decade of India being robbed of its rare and ancient sculptures and artefacts worth billions from temples and sites, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), Mumbai, finally managed to nab Indian-origin US businessman Vijay Nanda, believed to be a top global smuggler, running an international syndicate dealing in precious antiques, from South Mumbai.

Some of the stolen sculptures, which the DRI seized from a godown in Byculla where Vijay Nanda had stashed them up
Some of the stolen sculptures, which the DRI seized from a godown in Byculla where Vijay Nanda had stashed them up

Highly-placed sources in the DRI told mid-day that Nanda, who the agency suspects smuggled out and sold over 250 precious antiques and artefacts worth billions of rupees across the world in the last decade, was on several Indian agencies’ radar since long.

Also Read: Stolen ancient Jain, Hindu statues worth $450,000 seized in US

Nanda was living in the US for the last 30 years as a furniture and garment merchant. He set a company ‘Sangam Importer’ in New York in 2010 and sold old furniture from across the world. He also set up another company ‘Sage Mercantile’, with both acting as fronts for his criminal activities.

DRI said Nanda was arrested on his arrival in India a few days ago, a visit he had made to smuggle more sculptures out.

Modus operandi
He is believed to have sold the sculptures in Korea, Japan, China and Hong Kong, and European and Gulf countries. He would deal in stolen or vandalised sculptures from various temples across eastern and southern India. He would then legitimise them by forging Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) certificates and creating other fake documents.

Nanda would smuggle the sculptures out of India by concealing them in furniture or handicraft consignments and then sell them through auctions to art galleries, private collectors and museums.

His syndicate has allegedly smuggled Gupta Era gold coins, Post-Mauryan terracotta figurines, Rajputana swords and daggers, Chola bronzes and Tibetan statues.

Raid seizures
DRI officers carried out searches at Nanda’s house in Girgaum and a Byculla godown where he stored the stolen items, recovering 11 sculptures and artefacts (including six big sculptures believed to have been stolen from East and South India temples). “Each sculpture is believed to be worth crores of rupees,” said an officer.

Read Story: Australian PM returns 11th century stolen idols to Modi

Sources said DRI got important information on Nanda after scanning emails of his business associate Udit Jain, who ran the Dindayalan syndicate and was arrested by the Chennai DRI recently in connection with smuggling of antiques and ancient paintings.

Shipment to Hong Kong en route
Sources in DRI told mid-day that Nanda was in contact with a New York-based suspect through emails, one of which talks about the shipping of a big consignment of ancient Indian sculptures to Hong Kong. The consignment of 13 sculptures that was sent to Hong Kong a few days ago is currently en route.

A senior officer said all efforts are being made to trace the consignment and bring it back to India with the help of the relevant agencies.

DRI officers added that valuation of seized antiques would be done by a committee formed by the ASI.

A senior officer said Nanda’s arrest is important as it would lead them to the source of the stolen items and other important people active in the syndicate since long.

The goods
Gupta Era gold coins, Post-Mauryan terracotta figurines from 1st century AD, Rajputana swords, Chola Bronzes and Tibetan Buddhist statues.

Links with top smugglers
DRI officers said Nanda has links with other top sculpture smugglers of the country, including Subhash Kapoor. “Kapoor, who was based in the US, was arrested earlier and extradited to India based on information provided by the DRI. The 2,000-odd antiques that were brought back from the US after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 2016 visit to the country had been smuggled by the Subhash Kapoor syndicate,” a DRI officer said.

Expert speak
“The Buddha sculptures are superb examples of the Pala style from Bihar and Bengal from around the 9th century AD. They look like they are Avalokiteshwara images, going by the Buddhist stupa and the pose of the figures, made from sandstone and granite possibly sourced from the Chota Nagpur Valley and the Himalayas, and brought to the foothills of the Ganga Valley. The pair of Nagas is probably Buddhist, could be Jain as well, from the mid-to-late Pala period. The Nagas are water deities, as is indicated by the sinuous bodies, denoting flowing water. They come to the aid of Buddha in stories, such as Muchalinda Naga Raja,” said Kurush Dalal, assistant professor of archaeology, University of Mumbai.

“Similar murtis have been sold for $2-5 million each. But I believe you can’t put a price on a nation’s heritage. About a year ago, the UN Security Council had passed an important resolution, numbered 2199, which linked heritage crimes to terror funding. It was the first time ever that such a link had been made. It is no longer just a matter of national pride, it’s also a serious security issue. The fact that this crime was exposed by the DRI and not the ASI is indicative of this. After 2014, when Australia returned a stolen 11th century idol to India, more attention is being paid to heritage trafficking. However, more steps are needed to bring it to a stop,” said Anuraag Saxena, 
founder of India Pride Project.

- As told to Benita Fernando

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