Australian PM to return 'stolen' statues to India

NEW DELHI (AFP) - Australia's prime minister will on Friday hand back to his Indian counterpart two statues allegedly looted from ancient temples, ending a long-running battle over the pieces, his office said.

Tony Abbott will return the sculptures during his meeting with Narendra Modi in New Delhi, following allegations that the pieces, which had been displayed in Australian galleries, were part of an audacious art fraud.

Returning the objects "is testimony to Australia's good citizenship on such matters and the importance with which Australia views its relationship with India", Abbott's office said.

Abbott is in India to meet Modi's new right-wing government and sign a deal to supply uranium nuclear fuel to the energy-hungry country.

The National Gallery of Australia (NGA) bought a bronze sculpture of a dancing Shiva for US$5 million (S$6.3 million) in 2008 from New York art and antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor. A stone sculpture of the Hindu god Ardhanariswara also linked to Kapoor ended up in the Art Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney.

The Shiva, which dates back to the 11th or 12th century, and the Ardhanariswara were removed from display earlier this year amid allegations that they were stolen from temples in southern India.

India requested the return of the works in March and Australia agreed, with Abbott instructing they be brought on his two-day trip for presentation to Modi.

The NGA is suing Kapoor and his company in New York. The Canberra-based gallery says it was "fraudulently induced" to buy the statue. Kapoor, who is in prison in India where he faces charges over the alleged scam, claimed the statue had been sold to him by the wife of a diplomat, the gallery said. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him.

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