Looted 8th Century Buddah Sculpture Found in Italy

Returned to India

By: - Feb 10, 2022

An 8th- 9th Century Bodhisattva sculpture, looted from The Devisthan Kundalpur Temple in Kurkihar, Bihar, India, has been recovered in Italy by Art Recovery International following a decades-long search.

Kurkihar, near the most sacred city of Gaya, was a well-known Buddhist pilgrimage center between the 9th and 12th centuries and as a site, has yielded over 226 bronzes famously called the Kurkihar hoard. Many more stone and bronze sculptures from the site have been plundered to fuel the international black market in antiquities.

The stone Buddha had survived for almost 1200 years in the Devisthan Kundalpur Temple until about 2000 when it was illicitly removed and smuggled out of India. It has been missing for nearly two decades.  Working with Vijay Kumar of the India Pride Project, Art Recovery’s Christopher A. Marinello located the missing sculpture and negotiated an unconditional release from an anonymous Italian collector just before Christmas.

This is the second major recovery of Indian cultural heritage in two months for the joint efforts of Art Recovery International and the India Pride Project, following the successful repatriation of an 8th-century Goat Head Yogini statue from a garden in the English countryside in December 2021.

Christopher A. Marinello, a lawyer and the founder of Art Recovery International, said,

“Vijay provided me with his most-wanted list of looted art and we went to work from there.  The archival documentation maintained by the India Pride Project is essential and damning evidence of the illegal plundering of India’s cultural heritage over the last several decades.”

“There is more to ‘climate change’ than the weather.  The climate and appetite in the West for unprovenanced antiquities is changing rapidly.  Collectors are being criminally charged worldwide and collections are being seized as more and more jurisdictions let it be known that it is unacceptable to possess looted and stolen art.  A window of opportunity exists for possessors of stolen artwork to come forward voluntarily before law enforcement comes knocking at the door”. 

Vijay Kumar, Founder of the India Pride Project said,

“We have been searching for this Buddha for almost 8 years and were close to securing it when it was consigned for sale by a French dealer. The art market performed their usual optical due diligence by obtaining worthless provenance certificates from agencies that don't have the necessary means to conduct such checks, especially for Indian art.  However, we were unable to seize the artifact in France given its poor legal framework and pathetic past track record of restitutions”.

“We were overjoyed that Art Recovery International managed to track the present possessor. With cooperation from law enforcement in India and the Archaeological Survey of India a solid case was constructed including published journal images of the Buddha in situ and police records of the theft. Armed with this material, Marinello negotiated an unconditional surrender of the Buddha to the Government of India without compensation”.  

It is hoped that other collectors will learn from this case and perform better provenance research before acquiring such artifacts, especially when derived from living cultures where these sculptures are used by communities in prayer.  The Buddha will be formally repatriated on 10 February 2022.