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The Goat Goddess May Return to India After Being Stolen

Those who lived in and around the hamlet of Lokhari in Uttar Pradesh, India, had prayed for the recovery of an important goddess statue stolen from a local temple for more than 20 years. Those prayers have already been granted. The moss-covered 8th-century goat-headed god was unearthed thousands of miles distant in an English rural garden.

The sculpture will be officially presented to India's High Commission in London. It's a situation that embarrasses Sotheby's, which put the statue up for auction in 1988, only a few years before the auctioneer was accused of encouraging theft of ancient Indian sacred sites.

Christopher Marinello, a prominent specialist in retrieving stolen, looted, and lost art, was instrumental in the recovery. He said, "This piece is considered a god, not just a sculpture." "Looted objects are more than just financial assets for collectors and auction houses."

"It's such a unique sculpture," Vijay Kumar, co-founder of the India Pride Project, which is committed to retrieving stolen holy items, said. Finding her has been a dream come true. I was on the verge of losing hope."

Both men chastised Sotheby's for including it as lot 92 in its November 14, 1988 London auction. It was expected to sell for £15,000. Its worth now would be much greater, if it could be sold legally.

The statue was one among the plundered antiques included in former Observer writer Peter Watson's devastating book Sotheby's: Inside Story, published in 1997. He and Channel 4 Dispatches detectives discreetly videotaped Indian sellers claiming to have delivered a whole container load of artifacts, some of which were sold at Sotheby's in London.

It resulted in the auction house discontinuing regular antiquities sales in London and strengthening processes to guarantee that it would not handle an item if it was suspected of being plundered elsewhere.

Between 1979 and 1982, yogini (female religious figures) went missing, including the goat-headed god. They had formerly been part of a temple and stood on a hill near Lokhari.

The site used to have 20 sandstone god statues, each around five feet tall and with animal heads, according to Watson. "Villagers report that in recent years a number were carted away in trucks by vandals," he said Vidya Dehejia, then curator at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

"It was identical to lot 92," Watson said, adding that Dehejia had replicated the goat in her book Yogini: Cult and Temples. "Someone who Sotheby's had ample reason to believe trafficked in illegally excavated and/or stolen antiquities smuggled out of their country of origin," he added of the smuggler.

"As I understand it, Sotheby's pulled this from their auction, though that is still unclear," Kumar stated when asked whether the sculpture had been sold in 1988. Even throughout the investigations in 1998, when Watson broke the story, they did not name the consignor or pass over the facts to the Metropolitan police.

"What's more shocking is that it could have been listed as stolen and missing in his book for over two decades and still be in the UK."

Marinello, a lawyer and the creator of Art Recovery International, has helped museums, governments, and religious organizations recover approximately £400 million in art. "I wrote to them," he said, expressing his disappointment with Sotheby's lack of assistance. They were completely unwilling to cooperate."

"My goal is to call out Sotheby's for selling loot, but more importantly to draw attention to the countless looted objects in English gardens and collections related to colonial history," he said. Collectors should come out via us — kind of an amnesty – and we will ensure their anonymity. Otherwise, when they or their successors try to sell the treasure in the marketplace, they risk shame or legal confiscation."

After the owner, who wishes to remain nameless, decided to sell her property, the sculpture was unearthed. When she acquired the sculpture 15 years ago, it was already in the garden. She made it clear right on that the sculpture will be returned in its entirety.

"These are our ancient heritage," said a representative for India's High Commission, praising Marinello's pro bono labor and describing the loss of such antiques as "very painful." When temple parts are missing, a vacuum is created."

"This episode relates to something that allegedly occurred almost a quarter-century ago," Sotheby's stated. Sotheby's adheres to the industry's highest standards, backed by a world-class compliance staff that works closely with outside authorities to assure the highest degree of corporate integrity."

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.

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