Arrest of French woman exposes antique idols smuggling racket

She and her husband shipped artefacts stolen from temples to France

With the arrest of an Indian-origin French woman, the Tamil Nadu Idol Wing CID claimed to have busted a gang that had been illegally exporting stolen antique idols and artefacts for several years from Puducherry to France through the Colombo port.

They sourced the antiques from small-time thieves, who stole them from ancient temples in Tamil Nadu, special officer and former Inspector General of Police A. G. Ponn Manickavel said on Tuesday.

A special team nabbed Marie Therese Anandi Vanina, 37, at the Chennai airport when she arrived from France, where she lived with her husband Prabakaran.

She and her husband used to stock the illegally procured artefacts and idols in their Puducherry house before shipping them to France via Colombo.

Based on credible information on the network and after obtaining a warrant to search from a metropolitan magistrate, the special wing officials raided the house belonging to her on Frederick Ozanam Street, Colas Nagar, Puducherry, in 2016 and seized 11 antique bronze idols worth several crores of rupees.

Then the police arrested one Pushparajajan, owner of Classic Gallery, in connection with the recovery.

The wife and husband duo was cited as the key accused in the stocking of antique idols. The police could neither arrest them nor proceed further in the case since they lived in France and chose not to return to India.

Mr. Manickavel told The Hindu, “Her grandfather, Joseph de Condappa, and her father, Gerold, were antique dealers. After their demise, she and her brother had a dispute over properties, including antique idols. She shifted the antique idols from her ancestral place on Roman Roland Street to her residence in Colas Nagar. Four of these antique idols are worth more than ₹150 to 200 crore. Experts had also ascertained the antiquity.”

He said the woman and her husband left the key with their manager to show the idols to prospective buyers locally.

One of the prospective buyers tipped the police with a video. All the idols were concealed under cots in the house.

Immediately after the recovery of idols, the Idol Wing issued a lookout circular against her. Her bail pleas were rejected by the High Court and the Supreme Court. “There was not much progress in the investigation since the key accused was holed up in France,” Mr. Manickavel said.

The antique dealers also obtained two certificates from the authorities, one as handicraft and the other as antique. This enabled them to transport the items as handicraft, without any hitch and later sell them as antiques in foreign countries.

Vanina was produced before the Additional Chief Magistrate Court on Tuesday and remanded in judicial custody. She was lodged in the Tiruchi prison. The Idol Wing has sought police custody to know the location of other stolen antiques.

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