Non-resident Nataraja

There are many kinds of thieves: smugglers, customs and conservation officials, museum staff, and your venerable neighbourhood priest.

When the American art collector Norton Simon paid one million dollars to buy a stolen 10th-century bronze Nataraja in 1973, he certainly had no idea that it was so much money down the drain. For when he sent the idol to the British Museum for repairs, it was impounded as stolen property by the Scotland Yard, acting under pressure from Indian officials. A protracted litigation followed during which Simon pleaded "innocent purchase".  Finally an agreement was reached whereby the Norton Simon Foundation in Los Angeles was allowed to keep the idol for 10 years until 1986, after which it was reinstalled at its original place of residence, the Sivapuram temple in Tamil Nadu's Thanjavur district.

It was only by good fortune that the Sivapuram Nataraja returned home, and credit for it goes to Douglas Barret and his book Early Chola Bronzes. An expert with the British Museum, Barret, during a visit to India in 1964, happened to see the original idol in the possession of an executive with a foreign company in Madras, a fact he recorded in his book. This led to an enquiry by the Tamil Nadu government in 1969, which soon brought to light the fact that the idol residing in the Sivapuram temple was a masterly fake. But, by then, the idol had already been sold and, changed hands several times to end up with Norton Simon in 1973.

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Himal Southasian