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Obama and Modi get serious about stealing back art for India

AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Modi is taking home more than $100 million USD in stolen artifacts from the US. The Indian Prime Minister has some serious goods to declare when he returns. Obama and Modi met earlier this week and POTUS, along with the Attorney General Loretta Lynch, handed over more than 200 artifacts of cultural importance, stolen from India over decades.

“For some, these artifacts may be measured in monetary terms but for us this is beyond that. It’s a part of our culture and heritage,” the Prime Minister Modi said after receiving the artifacts at the ceremony at POTUS’ guest house.

As the art market thrives around the world, there's a thriving parallel market that depends on stolen art. The illicit art trade fuels conflict -- it can provide a steady income for many terrorist groups. With even just one prized artifact fetching hundred of thousands on the market.

Illegal trade in art and antiquities is estimated at a value of $6 Billion globally.

Art thieves are glorified in films like The Thomas Crown Affair, National Treasure (ironic story on Nicolas Cage buying an illegal T-Rex skull and returning it here), The Italian Job and many others, but they're criminals who can tarnish cultural heritage.

However, there are a few art thieves working for a good cause. They’re part of the India Pride Project (IPP) -- and they’re stealing back India’s art.  

“India and a whole bunch of countries in Southeast Asia have been losing a lot of our heritage to the illicit art trade. Thousands of year old statues, artifacts, paintings, murals,  literally get hacked away from forts, churches and temples and get smuggled out of India finding their way to the Western world,” IPP’s co-founder told BBC Global News in a podcast.

India Pride Project aims to reverse the trend.

When asked how he plans to recover all this art, the co-founder joked, “Well if I told you, I’d have to kill you.” Then went on to explain the organisation’s network of support that essentially acts as an investigative reporting team.

India Pride Project works to bridge the gap between art galleries, dealers and other who might not know the art or artifacts in their possession is stolen and the proper ministries working within governments to return key cultural artifacts to their home place.

“We’re just a bunch of people who have no background in art, academics, or what have you, we just want to be useful in restoring pride that the nation loses through losing its heritage. Somebody has got to do it, why not us?”

India Pride Project played a major role in getting the US to return over 200 artifacts to Indian Prime Minister Modi.

The return of $100M in cultural artifacts to India sends a huge message to the “heritage mafia” -- the underground criminal world dealing in artifacts and artwork -- that this type of illicit trade will not be tolerated by the rest of the world.

It’s empowering to see governments, organizations and even “a bunch of people with no degree” fight back against illegal trading, whether it’s animals, ivory, artifacts or art, all items of cultural significance (especially those #WorthMoreAlive living!) must remain in the right place.

Cultural tourism is a way for countries to draw pride, explore and share heritage and to generate a good deal of economic revenue.

Congrats to IPP, the US, and India for their diligence and doing the right thing. Let’s hope the next summer blockbuster is about the true heroes in the art trading world.