MUDP urges police to uncover art theft

International art theft syndicate suspected of stealing of sacred religious objects and art

Published on 8 January 2013

Author(s): Bali Daily/Ni Komang Erviani

Type:   Originally published 22 December 2012

Members of the island’s most influential Grand Council of Customary Villages (MUDP) have urged the police to unveil the possible operation of an international art theft syndicate suspected of being involved in the theft of sacred religious objects and art from temples across the island.

MUDP chairman Jro Gde Suwena Putus Upadesa told Bali Daily that they (all members) had greatly appreciated efforts by the Bali police to arrest a group of art thieves, but those who bought these items should also be investigated.

“The Balinese people are so angry and humiliated by the theft of such sacred objects used for praying and other religious ceremonies. How could people do this? Don’t they have any respect for sacred things?” said Upadesa.

A series of thefts targeting several temples across the island had angered the public and put pressure on the police. The first theft of sacred objects this year took place in March. Since then, 30 burglaries have been reported to the police. After months of fruitless investigations and mounting public pressures, a special team tasked to hunt down the suspects finally arrested four individuals who were allegedly directly involved or implicated in the thefts from up to 16 temples.

The temples’ sacred objects, in particular pretima (statues) made of precious wood and usually bedecked with gold and gemstones, are valuable to Balinese Hindus because they serve as the earthly, physical presence of their gods.

Upadesa thought it was possible that antique collectors and dealers were involved in this international theft ring.

“The sacred temple objects could be categorized as antique objects and have become one of most sought after and pricey objects for collectors,” he said.

Upadesa believed that Balinese people would not dare buy or collect such objects. “I assume that those objects were being sold to collectors outside of Bali and even overseas,” he added.

The previous case of pretima theft involved an Italian National, he said, “This could become early evidence of the existence of an international art theft syndicate here,” he added.

Previously in 2010, a number of sacred-object thefts also raised concerns among locals. Police finally solved the case at the end of 2010. The police arrested seven people involved in the robberies including an Italian national, Roberto Gamba, who bought hundreds of stolen pretima from the thieves.

However, after a trial lasting several months, Gamba was only sentenced to five months in jail, which triggered anger and disappointment among many Balinese Hindu scholars and community leaders.

Two other defendants in the case, I Gusti Lanang Sidemen and Komang Oka Sukaya, were punished with a seven-year prison term. Four other Balinese were charged in connection to the case and received sentences of between six-and-a-half and seven years imprisonment.

Upadesa demanded the judiciary to not treat such thefts as common criminal acts, as in the previous case where both the thieves and buyers were severely punished.

“Harsher punishment is needed as the stolen objects and pretima symbolize our Hindu belief. The thefts have desecrated our beliefs. It is part of religion symbol desecration. So, it is not a common criminal act,” he stressed.

The police, he said, must consider the social and religious impacts of the thefts. “Stealing an object and selling it is not just a mere economic transaction.”

The loss of pretima has left the community feeling violated and abandoned by the grace and protection of their deities. Creating new pretima would be expensive for communities and they would also have to conduct a series of major rituals to purify and enshrine the object.

The light punishment of buyers, he said, has disturbed the sense of justice in Balinese society. “Even if he only bought the stolen object from the thieves, they should receive severe punishment because they instructed the thieves to steal them from the temple,” he added.

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