Q: What inspired you to embark on this project?
KADETSKY: I wanted to explore antiquities theft, looking at the legacy of this market from the 1950s and the 1960s. I had a beautiful photographic book from the 1950s, when the Indian government was documenting ancient temples all over the country. I visited some of these sites in 2019, and it turned into this amazing odyssey because none of them were as they were in the photographs. They were all pillaged or in ruins, or painted and tiled over. I also saw several places where objects documented in the book had been taken out of temples.
Q: And that odyssey led you to the Tanesar temple in the Indian state of Rajasthan.
KADETSKY: Yes. I came across a journal article from the 1950s written by a prominent Indian archaeologist about the Matrikas, or Mother Goddesses, these beautiful green stone sculptures that had disappeared.
Q: Were the sculptures stolen?
KADETSKY: In the ’50s and ’60s, prominent Western art dealers worked with smugglers and middlemen, and many sacred objects were looted, landing in museums like the Cleveland Museum of Art and in private collections. One dealer in particular, Doris Wiener, who moved with the international jet set, had a great eye. I also think looting flourished because many people in Indian villages didn’t have a sense of what was ancient and what had just been made and placed in a temple as a replacement for an ancient object.
Q: Where are the sculptures now—the ones that have been found, that is?
KADETSKY: There’s one at the British Museum, one in New Delhi. I found one at Oberlin College that can definitely be traced to Doris Wiener. One is still at the temple, another showed up at Sotheby’s in New York. One came to the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1993 but was seized last year by the Manhattan DA’s office. The Los Angeles County Museum owns two, though they’re not on view.
Q: And the others?
KADETSKY: Two are still missing. One turned up in Sotheby’s in 1999 but is again unlocatable. One never turned up, though it was documented in the original 1961 article.
Q: There’s a lot of interest in repatriating stolen art—but “giving back” isn’t that simple, is it?
KADETSKY: Around 4,500 sculptures have been seized by the New York DA in the last decade from American museums and private collections. Half are from India, but it’s very hard to find out what exactly happens to a sculpture once it’s repatriated. The paper trail is not transparent, and there’s no telling whether a sculpture will make it back to its original home in India.
Creative writing professor Elizabeth Kadetsky is writing a book based on her research into the disappearance of the Matrikas.