The Idol Thief by S. Vijay Kumar – Book Review
The Idol Thief by S. Vijay Kumar is one of those books that you wish was a fiction. It has all the elements of a crime thriller with international agencies and smugglers playing their part. It is a dream plot for the blogger community, as you see a blogger who just blogs on the subject he is passionate about, becoming a key player in solving a mystery. In fact, I think this may be a great case study for how passionate bloggers can play role in making this world a much better place.
A story of Smuggler & Art Dealer
The Idol Thief is the real story of smuggler and art dealer Subhash Kapoor. As his name suggests, he was an Indian origin American Citizen whom everyone in the art world knew. Or, should I say everyone was obliged by him in some way or the other. He used to source ancient idols, specially Chola Bronzes from Tamil Nadu and sell them to private collectors or museums across the world.
Girlfriend step in, they all work together in fooling the world all around, moving the Gods around and making millions. Like a typical film plot, the lover’s tiff takes them apart. Another girlfriend steps in while the old one is in a mood for revenge. It was this revenge that would prove fatal for the man. If you think Villain is alone, no he has his sidekicks – both in his office in New York and at his hunting grounds across India.
While the book reads like a thriller, it ends up educating you about the whole art trade. Most of the times art only make news when there are exhibitions and art shows. We hardly get to hear the stories of how antique art travels from one part of the world to another or how museums acquire art. Do you even know that as per law after 1972, any artifact that is older than 100 years if taken out illegally has to be repatriated to India without any reimbursement? Do you know there is an Idol wing in the Tamil Nadu police department only to track the theft of idols?
Buy The Idol Thief The True Story of Looting of India’s Temples by S. Vijay Kumar on Amazon
The numbers are mind-boggling – be it the number of artifacts of all kinds stolen, be it the prices at which they are sold, be it the number of prominent museums involved.
I wonder if the foot soldiers of the art trade, the small-time thieves who steal from temples in villages would be better off if they understood the value of what they are stealing. Many of the idols stolen are from abandoned temples making them prone to theft. The fact that these thefts are not detected for years together tells us how much we are disconnected from our roots.
What leaves you disappointed is the attitude of Indian authorities in getting back the artifacts. When they work, it seems like an exception. The statistics of wings whose sole job is to track art theft would make you question their existence. Today technology and instant connectivity across the world help you identify pieces and you read many such stories in this book. It also made me think how easy it would have been for art smugglers before the Internet era.
Even today, art thefts and art smuggling remain an invisible crime. Like Vijay mentions in the book, we tend to think of it as soft crime, that potentially hurts no one. It does. The art belongs to the general public, if it is religious art, it belongs to the faith and emotions of people who worship it.
The story covered in the book is just of one big smuggler and primarily centered around Chola Bronzes and a few stone sculptures. It is safe to assume many such networks exist. The book touches upon the fake art industry, I guess that would deserve a book of its own. A story of fake Ardhnariswara at one of the temples when the original was stolen would make you wonder how many of the temple sculptures you see are real.
The downside of reading The Idol Thief is that I would never enjoy the museums the way I used to. I will always see the artifacts with a suspicious eye. I would imagine its journey from its place of origin to the museum display. Although I assume this may not be true for Indian museums as they hardly display what they have. I am not sure if they actively go out and buy art for their collections.
Author S. Vijay Kumar
I have known Vijay and his Poetry in Stone network for some time now. And I am also aware of the work India Pride Project is doing. I had stories about thefts and had conversations around laws governing the international smuggling of art. Even then, the book was an eye-opener for me.
Last but not least, Vijay has a way with words. His storytelling is not linear giving you a chronological account of what happened. He takes you back and forth in time. He introduces characters, leaves them for a while and brings them back at the right time. Gives you data but in small portion, so that you can digest them easily. I have never read such an entertaining and educating non-fiction. The credit belongs to S. Vijay Kumar as much as it does to The Idol Thief.
I wonder if anyone from Bollywood is already talking to the author for screen rights 😊
Highly recommended book to read. Read it.