Solving India’s idol theft problem


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: 1995 UNIDROIT

Mains level: Paper 1- Dealing with the issue of idol theft


Building an inventory of antiquities should be the first step in dealing with the problem.

Measures taken by the worldwide organisations

  • CAG in its 2013 Report stated that “131 antiquities were stolen from monuments/sites and 37 antiquities from Site Museums from 1981 to 2012″
  • It added that in similar situations, worldwide, organisations took many more effective steps:
  • 1] Checking of catalogues of international auction house(s),
  • 2] Posting news of such theft on websites.
  • 3] Posting information about theft in the International Art Loss Registry.
  • 4] Sending photographs of stolen objects electronically to dealers and auction houses and intimate scholars in the field.
  • Lack of legal provisions: The report also stated that the ASI had never participated or collected information on Indian antiquities put on sale at well-known international auction houses viz. Sotheby’s, Christie’s, etc. as there was no explicit provision in the AAT (Antiquities and Art Treasures) Act, 1972 for doing so.

International conventions and treaties

  • India is a signatory to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. (We ratified it in 1977).
  • Perhaps we should also sign the 1995 UNIDROIT (International Institute for the Unification of Private Law) Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects.

Lessons from Italy

  • Italy also suffers and several stolen antiquities have been returned by the US to Italy.
  • That being the case, it shouldn’t be surprising that many best practices originate in Italy.
  • The following list is illustrative.
  • (1) A specific law on protecting cultural heritage, with enhanced penalties;
  • (2) Centralised management before granting authorisation for archaeological research;
  • (3) Specialisation in cultural heritage for public prosecutors;
  • (4) An inter-ministerial committee for recovery and return of cultural objects;
  • (5) MOUs and bilateral agreements with other countries and international organisations to prevent illegal trafficking;
  • (6) Involvement of private organisations and individuals in protection;
  • (7) A complete inventory of moveable and immoveable cultural heritage, with detailed catalogues;
  • (8) Monitoring and inspection of cultural sites; and
  • (9) Centralised granting of export requests.

Way forward

  • One could say the 2013 CAG Report did a bit of (8), but that was a one-off and isn’t a permanent solution.
  • This isn’t a binary, nor is it possible to accomplish everything overnight. However, incrementally, one can move towards (1), (3), (4), (5), (6), (8) and, especially, (7).
  • We should start with that inventory.


While fingers can rightly be pointed at Western museums and auction-houses (this isn’t only about the colonial era), there is internal connivance.

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