Indian PM Narendra Modi and Australian counterpart Tony Abbott with the returned statues in New Delhi, September  5.

Story highlights

Australia returns lost art treasures to India, including Shiva Nataraja

Australian galleries bought the artworks from a dealer who's awaiting trial

Subhash Kapoor is facing trial on theft-related charges

Modi conveys "deep sense of gratitude" from Indian people

Sydney CNN  — 

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has welcomed the return by Australia of two ancient Hindu art treasures that were allegedly stolen from temples in Tamil Nadu.

During a meeting with Modi in New Delhi on Friday Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott handed over a 900-year bronze statue of Shiva Nataraja (dancing Shiva) and a stone statue of Ardhanariswara (Shiva in half-female form), also from circa 1100.

“I would like to convey to Prime Minister Abbott the deep sense of gratitude of 1.25 billion people of India for the efforts he has made to bring with him two ancient statues that were stolen from India,” Modi said.

Modi said Abbott and the people of Australia “have shown enormous respect and regard not only for our ancient treasures, but also for our cultural heritage.”

The National Gallery of Australia in Canberra bought the Shiva Natarja for $5 million (A$5.3 million) in 2008 from then New York-based art dealer Subhash Kapoor.

Kapoor was arrested in Germany in 2011 after U.S. investigators raided Manhattan storage units allegedly leased in his name, and found items “displayed in major international museums worldwide.”

Kapoor was subsequently extradited to India where he’s awaiting trial.

The former owner of the Art of the Past Gallery, Kapoor sold the Ardhanariswara to the Sydney-based Art Gallery of New South Wales for $280,000 (A$300,000) in 2004.

In March this year, the Indian Government wrote to Australia seeking the return of the two idols.

In a statement to mark Abbott’s return of the two statues in New Delhi, the National Gallery of Australia said it “would never knowingly purchase a stolen or looted item.” It said the gallery had undertaken lengthy, comprehensive and independent research before it bought the Shiva Nataraja from Kapoor.

“Despite these efforts, court proceedings may yet confirm that the gallery has been a victim of a most audacious fraud,” gallery director Ron Radford said.

Radford noted that Kapoor’s trial “is yet to be heard and he has proclaimed his innocence.”