G Deenadhayalan, 85, was formally arrested on Tuesday after police carried out multiple raids on his properties in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, leading to the recovery of the cache of idols.
Police have called in experts to determine the age of the 275-odd metal and stone statues of Hindu gods, which some specialists say could be hundreds of years old.
“Deenadhayalan is booked for conspiring to smuggle idols and idol theft,” Pon Manickavel, inspector general of a Tamil Nadu police unit that tracks down stolen idols, told AFP.
Deenadhayalan was remanded in custody after appearing in court on Tuesday on initial charges of conspiracy and theft, as well as a charge of smuggling under the Antiquity and Art Treasures Act.
The arrest comes after the United States returned more than 200 statues and other artefacts earlier this month to Prime Minister Narendra Modi that were taken from Indian temples.
Deenadhayalan’s arrest prompted the Tamil Nadu government to order an inventory of idols thought to be housed in the hundreds of temples and shrines located throughout the state.
Smugglers and looters have long been suspected of targeting the temples, many of which are located in remote areas and have been abandoned.
Police said they uncovered the suspected racket believed to have been led by Deenadhayalan after they arrested a gang of thieves carrying stolen idols last month. Police this month conducted lengthy raids on Deenadhayalan’s house, warehouse and office where he has run his art business for some three decades.
“We have seized substantial evidence to confirm that he had sold several antiques and artefacts to many traders and individuals in Europe, UK and the US,” another senior officer involved in the investigation, Prateep V Philip, said.
The arrest comes five years after international art dealer Subhash Kapoor was arrested and extradited to India on charges of running a multi-million dollar international smuggling racket.
Police are probing whether Deenadhayalan has any links with Kapoor, who used to own a gallery in Manhattan but is now in jail in the southern Indian city of Chennai awaiting trial.
Kapoor denies wrongdoing.
“We are yet to confirm Deenadhayalan’s connection with Kapoor,” said Philip.