In recent months, the United Kingdom-based Art Recovery International (founded by Christopher A. Marinello) and India Pride Project (co-founded by S. Vijay Kumar) have collaborated to successfully recover and return two priceless cultural objects stolen from India: an 8th-century, goat-headed yogini sculpture which was recovered from an English country house and an 8th–9th century bodhisattva from an unnamed Italian collector.
They make providential partners in solving such cases. Marinello is a lawyer based in Italy and the United Kingdom with more than three decades of specializing in art litigation, and has worked on several high-profile, Nazi-era restitution cases. The late Phil Manning, a church official for whom Marinello had recovered a stolen sculpture, once described him as “a mixture of detective, terrier, and pin-sharp lawyer — definitely someone you want on your side.” Kumar, on the other hand, hails from the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu and currently works as a shipping executive in Singapore. As a heritage enthusiast, he started a blog on Indian art in 2007, but the blog exposed him to the dirty underbelly of the global antiquities trade and he was overcome with zeal to bring the gods home. He has also written a book The Idol Thief where he details his experience in tracking and helping bring down the now disgraced gallerist Subhash Kapoor, who had operated out of New York City for decades trading in priceless Indian antiquities before he was caught in 2011.
For Kumar, these sacred objects are foremost part of a living culture where they are adored, prayed to, and taken care of. To see them sold illicitly in the Western art market and then used as decorative art showpieces in wealthy private homes and gardens is something he finds both heartbreaking and insulting. Marinello had visited India in 2009 and been moved by its people and culture. When Kumar recently reached out to him with a priority list of stolen cultural artefacts, he could not say no. Admirably, he has also worked pro bono on both the cases.
What makes them good partners is the way they complement each other. First, Kumar through the India Pride Project network is able to build the case file by accessing their archives and connecting with influencers and authorities who can help expedite the process. Armed with proof and documentation, Marinello is then able to locate the current owners and negotiate with them for the recovery of the idols. In both the cases, faced with irrefutable evidence, the current possessors agreed to unconditionally return the objects without any compensation.
Repatriation is a heavily debated issue but has little real progress to show for it. That’s why the string of three successful recoveries in three months by Kumar and Marinello (there is a third one expected to materialize shortly!) serve as a reminder that with effective collaboration as a basis for action, significant tangible outcomes can be achieved despite all the obstacles involved. This is something many governments and museums should take note of.