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.

UPSC 2022 countdown has begun! Get your personal guidance plan now! (Click here)

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments