Manikkavichavakar, photo courtesy of ICE

  Long story made short: In India in the 800s, Manikkavichavakar was sent to buy 10,000 Arabian horses for the king of Pandya on the subcontinent’s southern tip. On the way, he ran into a devotee of Shiva, became enlightened and used the horse-trading money to build a temple. He wrote some hymns, got famous, became a saint, and had a bunch of statues made in his honor.

More recently, a Manikkavichavakar statue got swiped from India and wound up in the U.S. and was recovered by the feds on Wednesday.

Below is the Immigration and Customs Enforcement account:

ICE partners with art collector to recover stolen idol from India

NEW YORK – An anonymous collector of Asian antiquities voluntarily surrendered a stolen 11-12th century Chola bronze statue representing Saint Manikkavichavakar. Special agents with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations’ cultural property unit determined the object had been looted from the Sivan Temple in Sripuranthan Village in Ariyalur District, Tamil Nadu in India.  The recovery of this religious relic Wednesday follows an ongoing international smuggling probe by HSI.

HSI special agents believe the collector is a victim in this situation because when the artifact was purchased in 2006, a false provenance was provided with the piece that had been manufactured to pre-date the idol’s theft.

HSI special agents have tracked multiple false provenances provided by Subhash Kapoor, the owner of Art of the Past Gallery, who has been implicated in the HSI probe dubbed Operation Hidden Idol. This methodology of back-tracking an artifact to its theft site and searching out the smuggling methods from the source country to Kapoor’s U.S. gallery has led to numerous recoveries. To date, HSI special agents, in conjunction with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, have netted in excess of 2,500 artifacts worth over $100 million. These artifacts have been sourced from countries all around the world.

On Wednesday afternoon, HSI formally took custody of the stolen idol of Saint Manikkavichavakar linked to the ongoing investigation. Although the relic is a religious idol and priceless to its worshippers, it could sell for as much as $1 million if legitimately offered on the market today. In addition to recovering this idol from the Tamil Nadu temples, HSI also has recovered at least six other sacred Chola bronzes that it anticipates forfeiting and repatriating to the Government of India.

HSI’s Operation Hidden Idol focuses on the activities of a former New York-based art dealer, Kapoor, who is currently in custody in India awaiting trial for allegedly looting tens of millions of dollars’ worth of rare antiquities from several nations. The trails of looted artifacts have been traced all around the world. Within the past three months, two domestic museums, the Honolulu Museum and Peabody Essex, partnered with HSI to surrender illicit cultural property stemming from Kapoor. Over the last three years, HSI special agents have executed a series of search warrants targeting Kapoor’s Manhattan gallery, along with warehouses and storage facilities linked to the dealer. Additionally, three individuals have been arrested in the United States for their role in the scheme. The estimated value of the artifacts seized so far in the case exceeds $100 million.