Two stolen Indian statues dating back to as early as the 8th Century and valued at over USD 4,50,000 were seized in the US from premier auction house Christie's, just days before an auction next week.
The artifacts made from sandstone were recovered from the auction house following an international investigation with assistance from the Indian government and the Interpol.
Special agents with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) along with the Manhattan District Attorney's Office seized the statues in New York on Friday, believed to be from the 8th and 10th centuries AD.
The seizure comes just days before the March 15 'Asia Week New York' festivities as part of which Christie's had included the two artifacts in the auction entitled 'The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern'.
The artifacts are a Buff Sandstone Stele of Rishabhanata, believed to be from Rajasthan or Madhya Pradesh belonging to the 10th century AD. It depicts a stele carved with the first Jain Tirthankara and is valued at approximately USD 1,50,000.
The second artifact is a Buff Sandstone Panel depicting Revanta and His Entourage from India in the 8th Century AD, in a very rare representation of the equestrian deity and valued at approximately USD 300,000.
According to the ongoing investigation, the Sandstone of Rishbhanata appears to have been sold to London-based Brandon Lynch Ltd between 2006-2007. The Panel of Revanta, according to images provided by the source dealer, appeared to have contained an "orphan fragment" - a piece perfectly broken off to be sold by the smugglers after the sale of the main part of the sculpture.
"This seizure at the beginning of an international event as well recognised as Asia Week New York sends two important messages: First and foremost, it demonstrates that we are committed to protecting cultural heritage around the world and second, it demonstrates that we are monitoring the market to protect prospective buyers as well," said Angel M Melendez, special agent in charge of HSI New York.
HSI special agents were able to determine that both of these artifacts had come from a specific smuggler and supplier of illicit cultural property in India.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R Vance, Jr. said that "with high demand from all corners of the globe, collectors must be certain of provenance before purchasing. I urge dealers and auction houses to take every necessary precaution to avoid facilitating the sale of cultural heritage stolen from other civilisations".
Christie's said that it would never knowingly offer a stolen work of art and it was cooperating with authorities.
"Christie's devotes considerable resources to investigating the provenance of all objects we offer for sale.
This is one of the difficulties the art market faces in vetting antiquities, which is why Christie's very much values building strong relationships with and between countries of origin, law enforcement, archaeologists, and the collecting community," it said in a statement.