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Federal agents recover 'priceless' 9th-century Buddhist statute from Phoenix-area home

500-pound figure will be returned to specialized gallery in India

Federal agents recovered a "priceless" 500-lb. 9th-century Buddhist statute from a home in the Phoenix area Monday, and will return the ancient artifact to India, officials said.

Agents with Homeland Security Investigations, a part of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, began an investigation into the statue, a 500-pound statue of the Mahayana Buddhist goddess Cundā in October 2019 after the current owner "expressed concern" about the statue she inherited from her family.

The owner ,who lives in the Phoenix metro area, told agents that the statue was purchased over 50 years ago in the Middle East while she and her family lived abroad, said Yasmeen Pitt-O'keefe, an ICE spokeswoman. 

Nearly a year later, in September 2020, HSI special agents contacted a professor at NAU who specializes in art history and Asian studies to help identify the statue. The professor, an archeologist specializing in Asian art, was able to verify that the statue was in fact the popular Mahayana Buddhist goddess Cundā and dates back to the 9th century and is considered a "priceless piece of cultural property," Pitts-O'Keefe said. 

HSI agents determined the statue was purchased abroad and shipped into the U.S. illegally. After learning of the statue’s origins, the woman voluntarily agreed to surrender the property to HSI so that it could be repatriated to India, she said. 

"Returning stolen cultural artifacts is a great example of the tireless work HSI does to combat those who seek to profit by plundering history," said Scott Brown, special agent in charge for the HSI Phoenix Office. "I commend the special agents of HSI for their work on this case. I also want to recognize the private citizens and businesses who proactively cooperated with our investigations, doing their part to contact the authorities to ensure that these historic artifacts are returned to their rightful owners." 

HSI seized the statute on January 4 for being imported into the United States contrary to law pursuant to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Convention of 1970,  and the Cultural Property Implementation Act. The statue was "carefully prepared for transport" and will be housed in a specialized gallery pending its repatriation to India, Pitts-O'Keefe said. 

HSI Phoenix led the investigation with help from the agency's Attaché Office in New Delhi, India, and HSI's specialized unit that focuses on cultural property, arts, and antiquities in Washington, D.C., she said. 

Federal law gives HSI the authority to lead investigations on the illegal importation and sale of cultural property and art, and customs laws allow the agency to seize cultural objects that are brought into the U.S. illegally, ICE notes on its website. This includes artifacts that have been reported lost or stolen. Since 2007, HSI special agents are trained by the Smithsonian Institution's Museum Conservation Institute on how to handle, store, photograph and authenticate cultural property and works of art, the agency said. 

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A 500-pound statue of the Mahayana Buddhist goddess Cundā dating back to the ninth century was recovered from a Phoenix-area home.