The Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) said yesterday it would return a sculpture identified as stolen, upon the request of the Indian government.
The 11th-century bronze sculpture depicting Hindu goddess Uma Parameshvari is among hundreds of stolen cultural artefacts amounting to over $148 million in an ongoing international art smuggling case. They are believed to have been looted and sold to museums by disgraced New York art dealer Subhash Kapoor, 65, who is awaiting trial in India on charges of theft and smuggling.
In a press statement, the ACM said it had bought the sculpture from Kapoor's now-defunct gallery Art of the Past for US$650,000 (S$900,000) in 2007.
The museum spent US$1,328,250 in total acquiring 30 objects from Art of the Past from 1997 to 2010, about half of which went to the Uma Parameshvari statue, touted as one of the highlights of the museum's 2007 exhibition Beauty In Asia: 200BCE To Today.
The artefacts obtained from Art of the Past, dating from the third to 19th century, include sculptures, paintings, architectural fragments, ancient rattles and manuscripts.
In January, Singapore's National Heritage Board invited the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI), the Indian national agency overseeing the country's antiquities, to discuss the sculpture and inspect the 29 other objects. The ASI officially requested the sculpture's return in June.
"While there is no conclusive proof that the sculpture was stolen from a Shiva temple in Tamil Nadu, India, ACM took note of the confession of Aaron Freedman, manager of Art of the Past... The sculpture was specifically identified by Mr Freedman as one of the 150 stolen objects," said the ACM.
It added that it would "commence legal proceedings to demand compensation" from Art of the Past. ACM noted the 29 other objects it has were not cited in Mr Freedman's confession, and no information about them has appeared in international registers of stolen artefacts, or in courts of law. "As a publicly funded state museum, ACM exercises strict due diligence in accordance with the museum's prevailing procedures in acquisition which have been benchmarked with international practices," it added.
Its move follows that of many collectors and museums worldwide, which have handed over contraband art from Art of the Past.
Ms Suman Aggarwal, director of Indian art gallery Indigo Blue Art, found it "odd" that the sculpture's provenance was not more thoroughly probed upon acquisition. "The decision to return one sculpture is a very small step towards the ACM exercising its due diligence as a responsible arts institution," she said.