The Idol Thief — by S. Vijay Kumar
Price: Rs. 499 INR(hardcover), Rs 30 INR (Juggernaut app)
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In October 2011 when New York-based antiques dealer Subhash Kapoor, the darling of the art world whose pieces can be seen in every major museum, presented his passport at immigration in Germany, he was unceremoniously whisked away into Interpol custody. India had weeks earlier issued a red-corner notice for Kapoor’s arrest after connecting him to audacious idol thefts in two Tamil Nadu temples. But when the US authorities subsequently raided Kapoor’s warehouses in New York, more skeletons came tumbling out of his closet. They recovered no less than 100 dollar million worth of stolen Indian art. This was just Kapoor’s inventory he had been in business for close to four decades and the true scale of his loot is incalculable. The US declared Kapoor one of the most prolific commodities smugglers in the world. This is the unbelievable true story of how Kapoor was caught, told by one of the men who had for years been chasing Kapoor and is still tracking idols that have passed through his hands. From complicit police officers to corrupt museum officials, from jilted girlfriends to secret inscriptions on centuries-old idols, and from two-faced academics to shady temple looters and smugglers this book has it all. Prepare to be shocked at the twenty-first century pillaging of India’s temples by a glittering cast of suave criminals.
About the author
S. Vijay Kumar is a Singapore-based finance and shipping expert who is general manager of a leading ocean transportation company. In 2007–08 he started a blog on Indian art. In 2010 Vijay got involved with both Indian and United States law enforcement agencies that were investigating cases of idol theft and smuggling. This book is based on his association with these agencies. Vijay has played a role in the arrests of several idol thieves and smugglers. He has also successfully matched several stolen idols with pieces that have been acquired by museums, thereby ensuring their repatriation to India. This is Vijay’s first book.
My take on this book
Looking at the book cover and the name, it is easy to be fooled as a ficton thriller, but read the blurb to be surprised that this a true account of events around art theft and smuggling that happened in the past few years. The book is narrated by Vijay who is a prolific art lover and aficionado who played a major role in helping the authorities burst the multiple smuggling networks and bring back the idols to their origins, out from glass museum doors to their worship lands.
The story majorly centers around Subhash Kapoor, the popular art dealer based in New York who ran Art of Past gallery. Vijay takes us through Subhash Kapoor’s journey in the art world, his murkier business, the major smuggling racket he ran over the years, his aids and how he is finally caught by Interpol. The book takes the reader through details on how this network operated right from stealing Chola-period bronze idols from South Indian temples, importing them through illegal routes to US, gifting them for goodwill or auctioning them for million dollars, by creating fake provenance details.
An abandoned shipment, an ex-girlfriend waiting to avenge, taking authorities for granted for too long and a group of bloggers and art lovers who volunteered for years, all these disjointed links finally come together to help burst Subhash Kapoor’s well maintained network of years. The lethargic law enforcement authorities and Subhash Kapoor’s reach till highest ranks, also delay the proceedings at each step.
While this is a supposed documented account of all the happenings of the years, the author keeps it interesting all through, giving it almost a fiction thriller flavor. This book explains the minute details of how organized crime needs a lot more groundwork of witnesses and proofs before an under-trial can be successfully taken to punishment. As noted towards the end, the battle is only half won; there are still idols across the globe which are yet to be returned to their homeland.
Unputdownable from the word go, pick this one to be taken on a thrilling story of centuries old bronze idols and their travel across the world from unattended ancient temples to art galleries to museums.