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Exquisite 19th century stolen painting of Maharaja Serfoji II traced to US museum

An exquisite mid-19 century painting of Maharaja Serfoji II of Thanjavur and his son Sivaji II, stolen from Saraswathi Mahal and found its way to a museum in the US in 2006, has been traced by the idol wing police, Director-General of Police, K Jayanth Murali said on Friday.

Serfoji was the last of the Bhonsle Rajas of Thanjavur. He died in 1832. His only son Shivaji ruled until 1855. However, he had no male successor.

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Thanjavur became a casualty of Lord Dalhousie’s infamous ‘Doctrine of Lapse’, and it got absorbed into British Ruled Indian provinces.

The painting, which has Raja Serfoji and his youthful son, according to some historians, was probably painted between 1822 and 1827 and kept in the Saraswathi mahal. In 1918, the Saraswathi Mahal Library was opened to the public.

The Idol Wing found that the 19th-century painting was purchased by the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, USA in 2006 from art dealer Subash Kapoor for USD 35,000.

PEM is one of several major art institutions worldwide that had purchased items from Subhash Kapoor, who was arrested in 2011 at the Frankfurt airport on charges of trafficking stolen antiques from India.

It turns out that through Homeland Security Investigation (HSI), PEM had learned that a mid-19th century Tanjore portrait in its collection, which they had acquired from Subhash Kapoor’s New York gallery in 2006, had falsified provenance.

The Manhattan antiquities dealer Subhash Kapoor and his girlfriend Selina Mohamed had participated in a decades-long conspiracy and laundered stolen antiquities by creating false ownership histories, the PGD said.

They had used the name of Leo Figiel, a collector of Indian art who died in 2013. Figiel provided Kapoor with this false letter claiming he acquired the artifacts from “a European collection in 1969,” a release said.

PEM, upon knowing from HSI investigations that the painting was a stolen piece of art with falsified provenance, took a decision and handed over the Serfoji painting to the Department of Homeland Security as part of the government’s ongoing probe into an alleged international art fraud enterprise, in 2015. All these surfaced during the Idol Wing’s inquiry.

“It’s surprising that despite Homeland Security readiness to return the painting in 2015 to India, no steps have been taken so far to bring it back to Tamil Nadu,” Jayanth Murali, claimed.

“Now, the wing has initiated steps to bring the painting of Serfoji back to Saraswati Mahal by providing the ownership through documents and the MLAT,” he said.

“Further inquiries with the authorities concerned have confirmed our findings. The Idol wing hopes to retrieve the painting and restore it to the Saraswathi Mahal library under the

UNESCO treaty soon. The wing has initiated steps to restore the painting to the library” he said.

The Idol Wing had registered a complaint on the missing India Wood, lime plaster, water-base paint, gold leaf, glass (144.78 x 107.95 x 13.97 cm) painting in May 2017.

Superintendent of Police Ravi and Inspector of Police Mrs Indira were part of the investigation team constituted to investigate and trace the missing painting.

the investigation revealed that in 1786, when Raja Tulaja of Thanjavur died, his adopted son Serfoji was young, and his other son, whom he had begotten through his concubine, Amar Singh, was appointed the Raja.

However, by about 1798, the British decided to make Serfoji the king. Serfoji soon learned several languages, and he enlarged the Saraswati Mahal Library at Thanjavur, which even today boasts of over 40,000 rare manuscripts and paintings.

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