Indian police have arrested an American businessman accused of involvement in an international smuggling ring that illegally trades in artefacts believed looted from temples, officers said Wednesday.
They detained Vijay Nanda, a US citizen of Indian origin, after finding antiques including terracotta figurines more than 2,000 years old at his premises in Mumbai.
The idols, which investigators suspect were stolen from Hindu and Buddhist temples in southern and eastern India, were destined to be sold for vast sums to private collectors abroad, police said.
Art theft is big business in India where looters and smugglers target ancient temples. Many are located in remote areas and have been left abandoned without any security.
Officers said Nanda was linked to the same syndicate as octogenarian art dealer G Deenadhayalan, who was arrested in Tamil Nadu state last year for possessing hundreds of allegedly stolen artefacts.
"Vijay Nanda is a prime player in the international art smuggling syndicate with extensive connections in the US, Europe and Hong Kong," India's Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI) said in a statement.
The DRI said the terracotta sculptures were found at Nanda's home alongside bronze figurines of Hindu deities Ganesha and Mahishasura dating from the 17th and 18th centuries.
They also found six large stone statues in crates at a warehouse he owned. These included sculptures of Hindu god Vishnu and Buddhist idol Padmapani.
"These statues appear to be reliefs stolen/vandalised from various temples in eastern and southern India and belong to the 10th-11th Century A.D," read the DRI's statement, detailing the ring's modus operandi.
It said stolen idols were generally smuggled out of India under fake documentation and concealed in furniture or garment consignments. Police said Nanda would arrange their sale in the US and Hong Kong.
India is on a drive to bring back some of its most valuable antiquities. Last year the US returned more than 200 statues and other artefacts that were taken from Indian temples.
Former Manhattan art dealer Subhash Kapoor is currently on trial in India accused of conspiring in the theft, trafficking and sale of religious artefacts.
He was the subject of a major US federal investigation known as Operation Hidden Idol and was arrested in Germany in 2012. He denies all charges.