Crime-Fighting Art Expert Helps Bring Stolen Buddha Statue Back to India

The statue comes home 57 years ago after being stolen

Image of the 12th-century Buddha statue Metropolitan police

Back in March, Lynda Albertson went to the European Fine Arts Fair in the Netherlands, on the lookout for stolen antiquities that sometimes surface at these kinds of events. Albertson, CEO of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA), soon caught sight of bronze Buddha statue that aroused her suspicions—and her hunch about the relic’s shady provenance proved to be correct.

As Gianluca Mezzofiore reports for CNN, the 12th-century Buddha has been identified as one of 14 statues that were swiped from the Archaeological Museum in Nalanda, eastern India in 1961. And on Wednesday, which is also India’s Independence Day, the statue was handed over to Indian officials during a ceremony in London.

The recovered relic is a delicate artwork that depicts Buddha in the Bhumisparsha mudra pose—seated, with his right hand resting over his right knee, reaching toward the ground and touching his lotus throne. The gesture symbolizes the moment that Buddha summoned the earth as a witness to his enlightenment, and it is commonly represented in Buddhist iconography. But as Albertson explains in a blog post, the statue that she spotted at the European Fine Arts Fair is nevertheless unique, created using "lost wax" or cire-perdue method of metal casting:

This is a process where a wax model is made which can be used only once, as the wax melts away when the molten bronze is poured into the mold. For this reason, each bronze Buddha made using the lost wax method is unique, and while other Buddhas may have a similar appearances or poses, no two will be exactly alike as each object has to be made from its own individual wax mold.

The singular nature of 12th-century Indian bronzes is what made it possible for experts to identify the statue as the same one that was stolen from Nalanda in 1961, but the authentication process still took some time. As soon as Albertson saw the statue, she sent photos of the relic to Vijay Kumar, cofounder of India Pride Project, which tracks down and recovers stolen heritage objects. He compared those photos with images from the Archaeological Survey of India, and agreed that they likely had a match.

Additional cross-checks confirmed the duo’s suspicions, and Albertson notified the Netherlands National Police Force, Unesco, INTERPOL and Indian authorities. But officials couldn’t simply swoop in and retrieve the statue.

“I identified the piece one day before the fair closed,” Albertson tells CNN’s Mezzofiore. “That's insufficient time to get ILORs (International Letters of Request) for assistance from India to Dutch police to seize the piece.” So the dealer, who is from the U.K., was informed that the investigation would recommence in his home country.

According to Nadeem Badshah of the Guardian, British police say that the dealer and the statue’s most recent owner had no inkling of the relic’s illicit provenance. The artwork appears to have changed hands several times since it was stolen in 1961, and it was even pictured in a 1981 book by Buddhist art scholar Ulrich Von Schroeder, suggesting that the piece has long been seen as legitimate.

The Buddha’s owner agreed to take the statue off the market while the investigation was ongoing, and ultimately volunteered to surrender the item. On Wednesday, the bronze was presented to Indian high commissioner to the U.K., Yashvardhan Kumar Sinha, and it will now head home, 57 years after it first went missing.