Art Collecting

Tamil Nadu Police Idol Wing to retrieve stolen sculpture of Chola Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi from USA | Pro Club Bd

The Idol Wing is investigating who stole the Chola Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi sculpture from Nagapattinam Temple after tracing it to the Freer Gallery in Washington

The Idol Wing is investigating who stole the Chola Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi sculpture from Nagapattinam Temple after tracing it to the Freer Gallery in Washington

Idol Wing CID police have begun their investigation to find out who stole an exquisite sculpture of Chola Queen Sembiyan Mahadevi almost a century ago from a nondescript village temple in Nagapattinam district, where she is worshiped as a god. Police special forces have taken steps to recover the piece, which was discovered at the Freer Gallery in Washington DC, USA, and a complaint has been opened for investigation. The existing sculpture in the temple was found to be a replica.

Police Director General, Idol Wing CID, K. Jayanth Murali said The HinduThe Freer Gallery of Art acquired the Sembiyan Mahadevi sculpture from Hagop Kevorkian in New York in 1929 for an undisclosed price. Hagop Kevorkian, an art collector, died in 1962. We have begun investigating the theft of the sculpture; how Hagop Kevorkian acquired them the idol and the price he paid for it. We have also asked Homeland Security for assistance in uncovering his ties to other art collectors as he had sold several antiques and artifacts from India and other countries.”

The investigation began after Elephant G. Rajendran filed a complaint in 2018 after visiting the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M.Sackler Gallery in December 2015, where he found many antiquities from different countries, especially from the Chola Dynasty, saw. One of the collections that caught his attention was a metal sculpture with a note under the base reading “Sembiyan Mahadevi, Chola dynasty, 10th century, Tamilnadu, India”. She was about 3.5 feet tall.

On his return from the US, Mr. Rajendran found out about the village of Sembiyan Mahadevi, some 25 km from Nagapattinam. He visited the Kailasanatha Swamy Sivan temple in the village and his research revealed that it contained a copy of Sembiyan Mahadevi’s sculpture. The locals apparently worshiped Sembiya Mahadevi as the avatar of Parvathi, he was told. This copy was commissioned in 1959 by the then Executive Officer (EO) of the Department of Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR&CE). He filed the complaint alleging that the original Panchaloha sculpture that belonged to the temple was stolen/criminally misappropriated many decades ago by the then EO in league with other local people.

After the complaint was lodged, there was little progress in the investigation. Idol Wing officers reviewed the case and expedited the investigation. Investigator Indira had the stone inscriptions in the Kailasanatha Swamy Temple deciphered by the Epigraphic Department of the Archaeological Survey of India. She further inquired with the temple staff, who had worked there for over 60 years. She said antique as used after the original Urachavar was stolen, a new creation was commissioned by the EO that duplicated the image moolavar Sembiyan Mahadevi Adigalar and that is still worshiped now.

Examination of the idol wing further revealed that the sculpture in the Freer Gallery of Art was probably that of the Chola queen Sembiyan Mahadevi, whose husband reigned between AD 949 and 57. Widowed at an early age, she was a highly respected patron of the arts, devoting most of her life to temple commissions. During her lifetime, her birthday was specially celebrated at the Shiva temple in the city named after her, Sembiyan Mahadevi, and a member of the royal family, probably her son, presented the metal portrait in her honor.

“The image seen here is probably the same sculpture. The Archakars treated them as Parvathi and the sculpture was draped in silk, costly jewelry and garlands of flowers and carried in processions during temple utsavams. This highly stylized image could be an example of how the lines between royal and divine are blurring in ancient Indian art,” said Mr. Murali.

“Our investigation shows that the theft of the sculpture from the temple by unknown villains occurred before 1929. . The complainant’s insinuation that the idol was stolen / criminally abused by the then EO of HR & CE in league with other locals about 30 to 40 years ago does not appear to be correct as the department did not exist prior to 1929. Therefore, the involvement and role of HR and CE departments in the theft have been ruled out, he explained.

“Our investigation also confirms that the existing sculpture of Sembiyan Mahadevi is counterfeit from a foot and a half at the temple,” Mr Murali said, adding that the Idol Wing’s wing has taken steps to bring back the stolen antiquity from the US gallery – consecrated in the temple at the earliest.

Hagop Kevorkian (1872–1962) was an Armenian-American archaeologist, connoisseur, and collector who excavated in Asia and was hailed as a world-renowned specialist for his collections of Middle Eastern art, particularly Islamic and Persian art.

S. Vijay Kumar, art lover and co-founder of the Indian Pride Project, said: “However, there is no clarity as to the legality of his collections and we are currently working on a whole range of artifacts which he has sold to prestigious museums including the Penn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum. Our research shows that he was meticulous about his paperwork, often including places in his documentation as to where they came from (such as the Karnataka Chalukya Brahma he sold to the Penn Museum). We are pleased that the idol wing has correctly refuted the very apparent inconsistencies in the original file and hope that the Freer Gallery will cooperate in disclosing any provenance documents it has of Kerkovian and, more importantly, to bring a precious deity back to the temple for worship.

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