US authorities have returned about 250 antiquities to India amid a long-running investigation into a stolen art scheme.
he items, worth an estimated 15 million dollars (£11 million), were handed over during a ceremony at the Indian Consulate in New York City.
The centrepiece is a bronze Shiva Nataraja valued at four million dollars (£2.9 million), authorities said.
The handover stems from a wide-ranging probe by the Manhattan district attorney’s office and the Homeland Security Investigations arm of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The investigation has focused on tens of thousands of antiquities allegedly smuggled into the United States by dealer Subhash Kapoor, who has denied the allegations.
District attorney Cyrus Vance Jr said the case “serves as a potent reminder that individuals who maraud sacred temples in pursuit of individual profit are committing crimes, not only against a country’s heritage but also its present and future”.
Authorities say Kapoor – jailed in India and facing charges there pending a US extradition request – used his Arts Of The Past gallery in New York to traffic looted treasures from India and various other countries in south-east Asia.
The investigation has resulted in the recovery of 2,500 artefacts valued at 143 million dollars (£104 million) and convictions of six of Kapoor’s associates, Mr Vance said.
The Shiva Nataraja bronze was sold by the mother of Nancy Wiener, a gallery operator who pleaded guilty this month to charges of conspiracy and possession of stolen property, authorities said.
Nancy Wiener sold looted items to major museums in Australia and Singapore.
In June, the district attorney’s office returned more than two dozen artefacts worth 3.8 million dollars (£2.7 million) to Cambodia as part of the investigation. Another 33 objects were sent back to Afghanistan in April.
Court papers filed in New York say Kapoor went to extraordinary lengths to acquire the artefacts, many of them statues of Hindu deities, and then falsified their provenance with forged documents.
They say Kapoor travelled the world seeking out antiquities that had been looted from temples, homes and archaeological sites. Some of the artefacts were recovered from Kapoor’s storage units in New York.
Prosecutors allege Kapoor had the items cleansed and repaired to remove any damage from illegal excavation, and then illegally exported them to the United States from their countries of origin, according to prosecutors.