In just the last month, the Idol Wing in Tamil Nadu has recovered 247 idols over suspicions of theft from two prominent business persons in Chennai. And while the investigative team is certain that they have a strong case against industrialist Ranvir Shah and hotelier Kiran Rao, the industrialists claim they are ready to prove their innocence in court with documents on October 11.
On October 8, while hearing a plea for anticipatory bail from the two accused, the Madras High court demanded that both Shah and Rao produce certificates that they claim to have from the Archaeological Survey of India on Thursday, for the artefacts in their possession. Amongst the arguments made by Ranvir Shah for anticipatory bail are the claims that his name was not mentioned in the FIR against idol smuggler Deendayalan and three of his workers. He then said that he lost the documents for 7 statues in the flash floods and had filed a case regarding the same on August 2016.
His petition further claims that he had, 'obtained transfer certificate of owner ships of antiquities for several antiquities in the year 2014' and that the 'petitioner has valid documents and proof for almost all the arts and artifacts which are in his possession. The petitioner has applied to ASI to obtain license for a few statues and the same are pending for assessing the nature of the stone and evaluation of the age of the stone sculpture by the expert of the ASI.
But experts and the Idol Wing are quick to punch holes into these claims.
"If he had the said documents, why has it not been produced till now?" asks a source in the Idol Wing. "He claims that he is a mere art collector. But the manner in which the idols were stored in the Kancheepuram farmhouse makes us question the motive for collecting them. If it is to decorate his house that is fine. But to just hoard them in bulk definitely brings doubt of whether he was going to sell them. Also, we were led to him during our inquiry with Deendayalan. So where is the question of naming him in the FIR?" he asks.
In 2016, the Idol Wing arrested octogenarian Govindaraj Deenadayalan. The 84-year-old was part of an international idol smuggling racket. Idol expert Vijay Kumar points out that the flash floods in Chennai happened in 2015. The Idol Wing arrested Deenadayalan in July 2016.
But according to Shah's counsel, the industrialist has applied to the ASI for new certificates and is yet to receive them. Out of the 200 statues seized from his properties, the legal counsel confirms that over 40 are from Deenadayal's gallery.
"As per the Antiquity Act, when registering an antiquity, you need to mention exactly how it came into your possession, when you acquired it and the mode of acquisition. The ASI then has to examine the artefact and determine whether it can be registered. How could he have obtained a certificate considering that Deenadayalan was not a registered dealer?" asks Vijay.
But Shah's counsel says, "Deenadayalan gave certificates. Whether it is genuine or not, we cannot be the authority on that. "
Kiran Rao's plot
At Kiran Rao's residence in Poes garden meanwhile, the raids reportedly took a cinematic turn. Just when the Idol Wing was set to leave without finding any evidence, investigators noticed that the mud was loose. Upon digging, they found 23 statues and pillars.
Rao then issued a statement claiming that she had been at the receiving end of extortion calls, forcing her to hide the statues.
As per her lawyer, she received the calls on September 29 from two accused demanding Rs.60 lakh. She and her family were threatened with physical harm. The caller also demanded certain sculptures from her personal collection and threatened to take them by force. A case was filed in Anna Salai police station but she also allegedly buried the statues to ensure safety.
"I have had this collection of sculptures in my family for 3 decades and I am emotionally attached to this collection," says Kiran in her statement. According to her legal counsel the statues were obtained from Mumbai, Kolkata and Mahabalipuram.
The Idol Wing however does not buy this explanation.
"It doesn't matter how long she has had them. She doesn't have credible certificates for them. If she did, she could have shown it to us," says a senior official. "The two should definitely not get bail," he asserts.