NEW YORK - U.S authorities on Tuesday returned one of the world's most wanted stolen artworks and two other pieces to the Indian government - staging the celebration after a monthlong clash over the arrest and strip search of an Indian diplomat in New York.
The sandstone antiquities depicting Hindu deities were handed over at India's consulate in Manhattan. The national anthems of both nations were played at the start of the event.
Consul General Dnyaneshwar Mulay denied there was any link between the timing of the repatriation and the U.S.-Indian rift after last month's arrest of his deputy, Devyani Khobragade. A U.S. grand jury indicted her on accusations she exploited her Indian-born housekeeper and nanny and lied about it on a visa form.
The art-related ceremony "was planned sometime back," Mulay said. But he acknowledged that although India and the United States have "an ongoing strong partnership ... all partnerships have their issues."
The Indian diplomat offered no further comment on the subject as he led the ceremony with Shawn Bray, the director of Interpol in Washington, and James Dinkins, a top official at Homeland Security Investigations that conducts looted art probes.
"This case would not have been successful without the collaboration between the United States and India," Dinkins told those gathered in the ballroom of the consular mansion off Fifth Avenue.
The center of attention was the 350-pound "Vishnu and Lakshmi" sandstone sculpture from the 11th or 12th century stolen in 2009 from the Gadgach Temple in the Rajasthan state. Interpol had listed it as No. 6 on the world's top 10 most wanted artworks.
Its stolen sister piece is the 600-pound sandstone "Vishnu and Parvati" from the same temple.
Homeland Security Investigations, which operates under the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, received information in 2010 that the sculptures were being offered for sale. The most-wanted one had first gone from India to Hong Kong, was then sold in Thailand, resold in London and exhibited in New York. Special agents intercepted the piece as it was being shipped back to London.
The sister sculpture also started out in Hong Kong, went to a New York buyer and then to another buyer in Switzerland.
The third returned work is a male deity in black sandstone from an unspecified location in India that was discovered by U.S. Customs and Border Protection entering the United States through Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J.
Customs and Border Protection Officer Domenic DiGiovanni said the shipment stood out on an aircraft manifest.
"It said it was from Great Britain, and they said it was a handicraft" - worth $400, he said.
When the crate was opened, "we knew that most definitely it was not what they said it was."
The officers notified Homeland Security Investigations, which turned to an art expert.
On Tuesday, officials declined to discuss those who were part of the international smuggling ring that orchestrated shipments of the three works that are worth at least $1.5 million.
"This investigation is far from over," Bray said.
Dinkins called the perpetrators "professionals at disguising ownership," noting that shipments are often mislabeled.
The handover comes after weeks of tensions between India and the United States over treatment of the deputy consul general in New York. Khobragade was picked up Dec. 13 and strip-searched while in custody, which the U.S. Marshals say is common practice.
She denies charges that she had her housekeeper work more than 100 hours a week for low pay.
The United States requested that Khobragade leave the country.