Australian museum to return sculpture bought for $5.7m

For almost a decade, Australia's national art museum, the National Gallery of Australia, spent millions of dollars purchasing Asian sculptures and artworks dating back a thousand years from now disgraced international dealer Subhash Kapoor.

The collection took pride of place in the museum, including the prized Shiva Nataraja, a 900-year-old dancing Shiva bronze statuette from India. The gallery bought the metre-high piece for A$5.1 million (S$5.7 million) in 2008.

But the museum was forced to admit two weeks ago that the work was stolen - one of numerous items purchased from Kapoor and the first confirmed to be a theft.

In an embarrassment for the museum, the theft was admitted during court action in New York earlier this month against Kapoor's office manager, Aaron Freedman.

The Shiva Nataraja, it emerged, was stolen from the Sivan Temple in Tamil Nadu in 2006.

Freedman pleaded guilty to six charges related to trafficking in stolen art and admitted to involvement in the sale of 150 looted items. He said he and Kapoor were aware of the theft of the Shiva statuette and forged false ownership documents for the piece.

Following his admission, the museum agreed to return the statuette to India - though the piece still adorns the entry to its Indian wing.

This marked a dramatic turnaround for the museum, which had for months resisted Indian pleas to return the statuette and other works which Indian officials insisted were stolen.

The museum also said it plans to sue Kapoor.

It said in a statement that Freedman's guilty plea represented "a significant and concrete development in the available information regarding the Kapoor case".

It added that it had instructed its American lawyers to commence legal proceedings against Kapoor, and gallery director Ron Radford had contacted the Indian High Commission to discuss "avenues for restitution".

The museum, near Parliament House in Canberra, said it made 21 purchases from Kapoor's Manhattan gallery, Art of the Past. These included Indian, Timorese and Gandharan antiquities purchased for more than A$11 million.

Fourteen pieces have apparently fallen under suspicion.

Australia will have to return all stolen items to India, as both are signatories to a 1970 Unesco convention on movable cultural heritage.

Mr Radford reportedly met Kapoor at least once.

"We're talking to the High Commission of India, we've been talking to them all the way through," he said at an exhibition opening last week, according to The Australian newspaper.

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