Illicit trade in antiquities is far more rampant than what the government assumes or is willing to admit. The arrest of Subhash Chandra Kapoor, the U.S.-based antiquities dealer and the subsequent investigation have exposed a well-entrenched network of dubious dealers thriving on stolen idols and looted artefacts. For more than a decade, they have been smuggling stolen cultural objects with ease and selling them to museums in the U.S., Singapore and Australia for large sums of money.

Outdated national policies and legislative measures have been rightly criticised for their inability to curb illicit trade. Ill-equipped investigating agencies and poor gatekeeping have received equal flak. But, the slack practices of museums and auction houses have escaped attention. The failure of the Indian government to aggressively pursue stolen cultural objects has emboldened them to continue with their opaque ways. In contrast, countries such as Italy, which was the first to set up a specialised police unit to deal with antiquities theft, have taken the fight against illicit trade to the doors of the museums and recovered many art objects. There is a lesson or two for India in this. idols